Edinburgh Festival '99: Too close for comfort

THEATRE Riddance Traverse Theatre, Venue 15 (0131-228 1404) to 4 Sept
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The Independent Culture
HALFWAY THROUGH Linda McLean's fascinating Riddance, Clare steps back from the brink. Playing for time, she ruefully observes her dilemma. "It's only when you don't know what to do that you think about choice, which is a pig isn't it? Because that's the time you're least able to make one."

The emotional undertow of this chilly thriller places it alongside such unlikely companions as Old Times, Pinter's exquisite threesome about the deceits of memory, and Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies. Yet one of its closest (if most unlikely) relatives is the Coen Brothers' debut film Blood Simple. The members of the interlinked trio at the heart of that gory story mistakenly believe themselves to be in possession of the whole truth. In fact, their knowledge is personal and deeply partial, which means that none of them knows what's really happening and murder enters their lives. Although the three characters in Riddance are caught up in a similarly gripping conundrum around knowledge and truth, in this case it's not the present which holds the key to their terrors.

Kenny, Clare and Frank lead lives of silence and denial, but the fear which drives them is rooted in their shared past. "Everywhere you go you leave a trail," says Kenny (Lewis Howden), terrified of having to face uncomfortable facts. He's a vacuum-cleaner salesman so frightened by the world that he keeps plastic sheeting on white carpet of his immaculate flat and demands that his friends use a coded knock on the door.

Everything hinges on a shared childhood from which they have tried to escape. Pregnant at 15, Clare (Carolyn Bonnyman) abandoned Frank (Neil McKinven), the unwitting father, despite loving him to the point of distraction, "and the distractions' names were more than I can remember". Almost 20 years later, having given up the child at birth, she still dreams about him and talks of him to Kenny who feels threatened by the connection.

Vicky Featherstone's beautifully controlled production sets this all up coolly and carefully, but when Frank unexpectedly reappears, everything shifts into a higher gear. You find yourself leaning forward, anxious to plunge into McLean's rippling pool of revelations. The suspenseful gap between what the characters think they know and what the audience knows is quintessentially dramatic, and rather than succumbing to clever twists for the sake of plot thrills, she consistently allows us to feel the emotional consequences of every step her characters take. If she doesn't quite manage to dramatise the bigger picture, her eye for the dramatic consequences of individual lives makes Riddance an intriguing and promising debut.