13 casts its net far too wide

13, National Theatre, South Bank ***

�With its focus on a plethora of characters feeling the effect of a whole host of society’s ills, in a sense, Mike Bartlett’s 13 is about everything. In the same way, the “broad and shallow” cast of the story, at the expense of development, means it is not really about anything at all.

Thirteen characters have a nightmare and wake up into lives which seem, through the murky lens of the writer, like a subtle continuation of that grim terror. Their pick and mix lives gradually become intertwined in a series of unplausible plot twists where themes like religion, protest, questionable reality, science, feminism, loss, grief, sex, the inadequacy of law, politics, war and the family are explored.

At first, the scenes whizz by so quickly, aided by spectacular staging, that the main impression is of underdeveloped characters. Everyone, from the hotshot lawyer and the stay-at-home wife of a diplomat to the young anarchic woman, seems to fit perfectly into their unimaginative maker’s mould.

As the plot develops, John, a once missing young man who returns to give speeches about society in the park, becomes a messianic figure set against a backdrop (one of many) of bickering about the existence of God. He wants to challenge authority and the decisions of the Prime Minister (also a character) but, in doing so, he becomes an authority himself, answerable to his own subjects and their extreme interpretations of his message. Perhaps this is the most valuable and timely message in a play where theme upon theme is clumsily applied to an already heaving plotline.

13 is a victim of its own aspiration. To expect to make a coherent comment on everything it tries to in three hours is unrealistic and does a disservice to the very complexity of the world that it is trying to convey.

Until January 8.