Listening to the teenager within

What has maturity brought the playwright Sharman Macdonald? Clare Bayley asks the questions (left); Paul Taylor gives the verdict on her new play
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The Independent Culture
In the humorously humane plays of Sharman Macdonald, a daughter's place is always in the wrong. She excels at portraying the difficult bond between fortysomething women and their badgering mothers whose pained love for them takes the skewed form o f quirkily garrulous fault-finding. Tact is not their forte.

The Winter Guest, her new work, premiered in Alan Rickman's beautiful production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, plays tragicomic variations on a relationship of this kind. The daughter Frances (Sian Thomas) is once again a widow before her time, with ason (now adolescent) and a life stalled by the memory of her husband. Wrapped in a defiantly non-PC fur, mistress of the airy Scots put-down ("If you want movement, Frances, make a film," she says of her daughter's professional photograph.) Phyllida Law's consummately acted mother shows you a woman who would like to make a friend of her child. Up to the end, though, her efforts to do so are amusingly counter-productive.

The action takes place one February day in a seaside town on the west coast of Scotland, the dun hues of the rocky icebound beach dreamily realised in Robin Don's remarkable set. Preoccupied by death and the need to assert a human resilience in the face of it, the play shows the mother-daughter pair in juxtaposition to other generation-spanning couples. At the oldest end are a pair of prim biddies (Sheila Reid and Sandra Vow) who positively live for the funerals they attend. At the youngest, there are apair of pre-pubertal, foul-mouthed schoolboys (John-Ross Morland and the brilliant David Evans). In between these poles, Frances's son finds tentative adolescent love and a possible way of exorcising his father's paralysing posthumous presence.

There are glancing, unforced resemblances between these various strands. Death is eventually, if partially, outfaced in all of them save for that involving the young boys where Macdonald does not manage to avoid a certain sentimentality. Elsewhere, the poetry of this warmly observant, plotless mood-play is wonderfully balanced by earthiness and bite. As with some of her previous pieces, The Winter Guest makes you think of a fine short story, while also paradoxically working very well on stage.