Tom Fool, Bush Theatre, London

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The German playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz anatomises misery with the accuracy and dexterity of an expert surgeon. His stark plays focus on people trapped by their economic circumstances and unable to articulate their frustration. In the 1978 Tom Fool (Mensch Meier, translated here by Anthony Vivis and Estella Schmid) he offers a grimly good dissection of a working-class marriage imploding as a downturn in the economy hits home. And Claire Lizzimore’s production, from the Glasgow Citizens Theatre, is beautifully timed and controlled to bring out every minute observation and shift in balance.

The Tom Fool of the title is Otto Meier, a semi-skilled worker on the BMW construction line in 1970s Germany. Life is repetitive and drab; Otto frets about retrieving the Parker pen he lent to his boss. Then a new round of redundancies means he has to work more or face the door. The economic climate brings a chill wind into his cramped apartment: Otto fears for his own job, sees his horizons contract and his hopes of something better for his son, Ludwig, evaporate. Rather than talk to his family, though, he snipes at them.

In a series of short, episodic scenes, Kroetz sketches out the confines of the family’s lives. The devil is in the detail: the almost wordless scene in which Martha harries Ludwig out of his makeshift bed on the sofa speaks volumes. She methodically replaces his lava lamp and posters with a selection of living room paraphernalia that she keeps on a tray overnight. Otto takes the family out to a beer garden – and memorises the bill in minute detail. The oppressive atmosphere builds until Otto’s wrath erupts in a frenzy of destruction. His wife and son escape and achieve some independence – but even that is limited to a life of tedious toil.

There are times when Kroetz’s merciless observation grates and his characters feel too much like specimens. But the strong cast in Lizzimore’s production lends them dignity and depth. Richard Madden brings a wordless despair to the taciturn teenage son; Meg Fraser movingly helps us realise how much Martha’s break for freedom costs her; and Liam Brennan’s fine Otto struggles like a fish out of water as he learns to voice his feelings.
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