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Dig that trash

Tom Kempinski's challenging new play is set on a rubbish dump among scavengers. By Adrian Turpin
There hasn't been such a load of old rubbish in a London theatre for a long time. There must be a ton of it, heaped into hillocks on the stage: newspapers, tin cans, old toys, plastic bags, rags. It's not often that you find the sickly sweet scent of body odour and mothballs in the stalls, but at the moment the Theatre Royal, Stratford East smells like a charity shop on a damp winter.

In the near-silent opening minutes of What a Bleedin' Liberty, Jenny Tiramani's set overwhelms the senses, a tribute not just to her design skills but- to the 126 individuals and businesses credited with collecting enough refuse to re-create an East End waste dump. Wispy clouds scud across the backdrop; Canary Wharf tower shimmers in a heat haze, and Jo Joelson's lighting perfectly catches that point on a summer evening when the sky swells like a bruise, hovering indecisively on the point of rain. It looks great, and Philip Hedley's well-paced production justifies all the visual care lavished upon it.

The rubbish dump that the middle-aged Doreen and Bert Gurney scour for valuables may be the dominant image in Tom Kempinski's new two-hander. But it is not - the author says - a dominant symbol. In Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, writes Kempinski in the programme, the mound in which Winnie is buried was a symbolic mound. By contrast, his mound in What a Bleedin' Liberty, "is real, and Bert and Doreen's struggle is real and hard. Life for my characters is hard but it is not meaningless." To ram this point home, he has subtitled the play: "an attack on the despair and philosophy of meaninglessness espoused by the great Samuel Beckett."

All of which sounds like a licence for an hour and a half's sentimentality of the "we worked hard but we was happy" variety. Fortunately, though, What a Bleedin' Liberty is smarter than that. True, it wears its heart unfashionably on its sleeve when it comes to politics and social issues. If you were told it had been written in the Seventies and stuck in a drawer for 25 years, you wouldn't be at all surprised. True, too, that there aren't many belly laughs for a work waging war on despair. But Kempinski offers some sharp dialogue to capture the banter of a lengthy marriage ("Shut up and dig for victory"); and Kate Williams and Eric Richard give a couple of finely understated - and ultimately moving - performances as the scavengers who unearth more than they've bargained for.

Most importantly, perhaps, when it comes to offering a corrective to Beckett's bleak vision, Kempinski's script conjures a world of human relationships and responsibilities off stage: a real world at that, full of machine tools, television licences and the Ford motor company at Dagenham. A preference for the specific over the abstract is a central theme in What a Bleedin' Liberty; it's also the greatest strength of Kempinski's writing.

To 18 May, Theatre Royal, Stratford, London E15. Booking: 0181-534 0310