Arts: Maternal tyranny

THEATRE Bailegangaire Royal Court, London
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When the excellent Irish actress Rosaleen Linehan was last seen on the London stage, she was up to her waist and then her neck in a mound of earth, jabbering away as Beckett's Winnie in Happy Days. In Bailegangaire, the first revival in a Tom Murphy season at the Royal Court, she's only marginally more mobile and every bit as redoubtable in the loquacity department. Propped up against the pillows, she plays Mommo, a bed-ridden, senile crone who spends her waking hours obsessively repeating a long involved story from her past about the day her husband challenged a hefty Bochtan man to a laughing contest and how, as the eventual result of this, the name of that town was changed to Bailegangaire, which means "the place without laughter".

Where Beckett's Winnie clings to speech as a way of staving off boredom and terror, Mommo's elaborate outpourings are a strategy of postponement and evasion. She never reaches the tragic end of the saga because she can't face it. Her long-winded tale and its inconclusiveness would drive a saint to distraction and, even at first hearing, run the risk of having much the same effect on the audience. Imagine, then, the frayed nerves of Mommo's middle-aged granddaughter, Mary (Brid Brennan) who, in a situation remarkably like that in Martin McDonagh's later Beauty Queen of Leenane, is the lonely spinster carer of a tyrannically demanding hag.With the added insult, here, that she takes Mary for an interfering servant whose puzzling presence she resents and only deigns to recognise her less dutiful, sexually more adventurous married granddaughter, Dolly (Ruth McCabe).

While the old lady rabbits on, wrapped up in the past, the two younger women try to come to terms with their lives in the present. Mommo's story seems to take you back to a medieval pagan world (the contest turns into a kind of communal defiance of the gods as the peasant people shout out all the worst misfortunes they have endured and laugh uproariously: "Nothin' was sacred and nothing a secret. [Including] the unbaptised an' stillborn in shoe-boxes planted." Her granddaughters' experience puts us in touch with a mid-Eighties Ireland where, down the road from Mommo's traditional thatch cottage, there is a Japanese electronics plant which is none the less due to close, doubly symbolising the locals' lack of control over their destiny.

Mary's convinced that the past holds the clue to the healing of the present and if Mommo can be steered into carrying her story through to the end, then a fresh start will be possible. But the catharsis of the close struck me as unearned and unconvincing and the intimations of renewal and rebirth out of all proportion to what had been finally exorcised. Before this dramatically under-justified moment, the control of mood and the acting in James Macdonald's production are superb. Brid Brennan's grave, sensitive, Mary shows you an intelligent woman near to the end of her tether and she and Ruth McCabe's blowsy, humorous, elicitly pregnant Dolly skilfully signal the edgy intimacy of these sisters as they get at each other by individually prompting their grandmother in to fresh cascades of narration.

Ms Linehan's performance is a tour de force, though not one that will be necessarily all that intelligible at first to English ears. Luxuriating in the preposterously literary diction of the tale and hawking up the various types of laugh from her prodigious vocal plumbing, she lets you hear a woman whose rapt, ravingly grandiloquent manner is a shelter from the meaning.

To 17 May. Booking: 0171-565 5000