25 March 2004 - 15 May 2004

Evening Performances:
Monday - Saturday 7.30pm

Saturday Matinees:
3, 10, 17, 24 April, 1, 8 and 15 May 3.30pm

Mid-Week Matinees:
29 April 3.30pm

Royal Court Theatre

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April 01, 2004, Thursday
Features; The Arts: Pg. 22

Swing low is not so sweet First Night

By: By Dominic Cavendish

GILLIAN Anderson swung back into the frame as a serious stage actress last night. After the sorry disappointment of her West End debut two years ago in Michael Weller's atrocious What the Night is For, and after years of being known here only for her part as Agent Dana Scully in X-Files, her winning performance as yet another Dana - this time, the tortured artist at the centre of Rebecca Gilman's latest play - suggests she's capable of batting away doubts about her talent once and for all. To be blunt, she's quite the best thing about The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, a dismayingly lacklustre affair from start to finish.

American playwright Gilman enjoys an extraordinary favoured status at the Royal Court; a staggering four plays of hers have now premiered here since 1999, a special transatlantic relationship matched only by Neil LaBute and the Almeida. Why she should be so beloved has long been a slight puzzle to me.

Presumably it's because her forte thus far has lain in producing the kind of contentious, issues-led material that her British contemporaries either fight shy of, or feel unable to grapple with at present. Gilman's debut, The Glory of Living, peered into the malign mindset of a white trash couple mutually complicit in the rape and murder of young girls; Spinning into Butter lifted the lid on racism among the liberal intelligentsia of America's campuses and Boy Gets Girl, her most recent piece, smartly anatomised the process by which a blind date turns into a nasty case of stalking.

With The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, directed by Royal Court supremo Ian Rickson, however, it's hard to escape the feeling that were Gilman just another British playwright, the work would have got nowhere near a mainstage.

In many ways, this is a more deliberately downbeat offering than we've come to expect from her. When Anderson's deathly pale Dana is first revealed - mournf ul and alone in a cavernous white atelier with giant, unviewable canvases, it's painfully apparent that here's someone who isn't coping too well.

Rejection by her boyfriend and a disastrous gallery opening night swiftly tip this fragile creature over the edge, and, one attempted suicide later, the same white walls become those of a mental institution where Dana finds respite from the pressure-cooker art world outside. At first Gilman seems to be making an unstartling, but still valid, point about the way ordinary depression can go undiagnosed and, even when it's finally acknowledged, be confronted by a shrug from the medical establishment.

But then, the twist. Dana realises that in order to stay on she'll have to develop a personality disorder and by chance alights on the figure of black baseball legend Darryl Strawberry who, in Shakespearean style, cracked under the pressures of fame brought on by being a World Series champion and wound up, albeit temporarily, a drug and alcohol-addled loser. Anderson, who copes brilliantly with the text's demand for Dana to be low-key at first, blankly staring out at the world as though it has lost all meaning, rises admirably to the demands of lamely inhabiting the persona of a man she's totally ignorant of. The actress pulls off the trick of being flagrantly unconvincing - Dana's speech is comically packed with stereotypical assumptions - while suggesting, to a touching degree, that the character is becoming a little crazed.

The trouble is that Gilman comes across as unconvinced by her own conceit. Having underplayed the horrors of clinical depression, she swings to the opposite extreme with her heroine's unhinged attempt to stay among the certified (best of a tokenistic bunch being John Sharian's psycho). Finally, there's something self-satisfied about the way the play reiterates its satirical points about the shallowness of Dana's art world colleagues. It's as though Gilman herself were beseeching the critics to leave her alone to develop her skills. Well, all I can say is that, on the evidence of this, they sure need developing.