ARTS / Absolutely captivating: Play of the Year

THE CHOICE, as usual, has been between accomplished low-key pieces on personal themes, and ambitious public work that fails to take off. Richard Cameron's Pond Life was as truthful and well-written as anything this year; but who outside the Bush wanted to see a group of Doncaster teenagers go on a fishing party? Plenty of people would have been interested in the post-1989 story of a East-European dissident, but when it took the form of John Malkovich servicing a queue of lady spies in his woodland dacha (Dusty Hughes's A Slip of the Tongue), the interest fell off.

Not counting American imports (which included two of the year's best shows: Tony Kushner's Angels in America and John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation), there have been a few notable exceptions to this dismal pattern. John Osborne's Dejavu was better than anyone expected, even though it went to prove that Jimmy Porter no longer spoke to the nation. Jim Cartwright's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice managed to spin a touching fairy-tale from the backstreets of Bolton, even if it only existed to show off the astounding vocal gifts of Jane Horrocks. Tony Harrison was careful to avoid calling Square Rounds a play; this 'theatre piece' embraced the paradoxes of scientific research, utopian aspiration, and mass slaughter in a the form of a spectacular poem. Harrison is at a crucial moment in his stage career. He follows Larkin as our most popular poet, with a far wider range of sympathy; he has moral authority and is continually enlarging his territory. The question, previously obscured by his work as an adaptor of classical tragedy, is whether he possesses any narrative gift of his own.

Harrison's work successfully absorbed non-British experience; an ability on which the future of English playwriting depends. Another, if minor, instance was James Saunders's Making it Better, which showed the impact of a Central European go-getter on a pack of comfortable Bush House liberals. Saunders did not go out on a limb; he set the piece in a world where he and the audience were already at home. But he succeeded in characterising the ruthless visitor from the East as accurately as the cosy little circle in NW3.

The play I admired most was Someone Who'll Watch over Me, which combined topical urgency with virtuoso technical control. Frank McGuinness not only got into the minds of three Beirut hostages; he found a way of dramatising their unendurably static situation. Their games, squabbles, and collisions of national temperament all arose from their predicament, and turned the play, against the odds, into a heart-piercing comedy, beautifully played by Stephen Rea, Alec McCowen and Hugh Quarshie. As Peter Barnes once put it: 'The comic stuff is the serious stuff.'

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