Arts: Theatre - The quality of horror

BEING PURSUED by the Furies is an occupational hazard for Greg Hicks. In Peter Hall's The Oresteia he was a memorably tormented Orestes. Now, in Adrian Noble's skilful revival at the Swan, he plays the equivalent figure of Harry, hero of The Family Reunion, TS Eliot's Christianised transposition of the myth to a Thirties English country house.

Even his creator came to consider Harry "an insufferable prig": on the face of it, I'm strongly tempted to agree. Returning to the ancestral home after eight years for his elderly mother's birthday party, he's haunted by the guilty fear he may have murdered his wife. But the play is no "police procedural": the main female character proclaims: "What we have written is not a story of detection/Of crime and punishment,/but of sin and expiation." From arrested development to Orestes' development: his progress consists in finding the true source of the curse that's working its way out through him, and embracing this fate.

There is, indeed, a noxious reek of spiritual snobbery in Harry's caustic castigations of the rather Cluedo-like chorus of uncles and aunts, played with a sharp comic clarity. But Hicks thrilling performance doesn't allow you to stay alienated from Harry's alienation. Elegantly haggard in evening dress, he delivers Eliot's verse with the rapt, incisive annunciation of a man fearfully obsessed, drawing you into Harry's waking nightmare all the better for its horror's hushed quality. He makes you see the Furies well before they actually materialise, swarming in a gust of smoke against the sloping window at the back of Rob Howell's bare, abstract set.

How to present these is always a problem. A few years ago Julia Bardsley hit on the ingenious solution of displaying them as creepy midget versions of Harry's relations - giving shuddery substance to the idea that he is the troubled "consciousness" of his (unhappy) family". Noble's Furies don't make the flesh creep nearly so much. With stockings pulled over their faces and sporting dark middle-class clothes, they look like a collection of Anglican carol singers who've taken a leaf out of the terrorists' PR handbook.

Elsewhere, the production's touch is sure. You might quibble that Lynn Farleigh looks too young to play Agatha, the aunt who is Harry's spiritual mother as, through an act of renunciation, she may have saved his life when he was in the womb. But she plays the role with great conviction, particularly in the sequence where she unpins her hair and starts massaging her groin, evoking the erotic past at the moment she predicts, with incantatory fervour, the curse's eventual undoing. As Wishwood's iron-willed matriarch, on whose altar she's misguidedly sacrificed everything, Margaret Tyzack beautifully suggests, through her grim final mask of desolation and belated recognition, that it is she, and not her son, Harry - off to do God knows what on his higher plane of reality - who is the play's true tragic figure.

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