REVIEW / Home and away: The carver chair - Manchester

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GIVEN television's predilection for the family saga, some producer should seize upon the stories afforded by immigration to this country over the last 40 years. Islanded as we are, few of us since the war have felt the flux of global history as directly as those who have come from the Caribbean or Asia.

Tyrone Huggins seeks to capture something of this experience in his new play The Carver Chair. The manner of his narrative is, however, a long way from television saga. It shares that genre's historical sweep, from St Kitts in 1935, to Birmingham in 1959, to the present day, but its three episodes approach their subject in different styles and from quite unexpected angles.

In front of a backcloth painted with theatre curtains and a palm tree (design by Simon Banham), the St Kitts episode is nearly expressionist. The rest of the setting consists of one of the estate owner's heirlooms - a set of chairs, including the carver chair, which passes into the hands of the black family whose history we follow. The second episode, set with detailed realism in Margaret and Jake's cramped flat, has deliberate elements of sitcom. In the effort to assimilate, Margaret has invited round her work-mate Josie and her husband. The result is an often very funny comedy of manners, as the couples strive for mutual understanding.

Finally, in the present, we are at Jake's funeral. The spare action combines the burial rites with worries about etiquette and politeness to scarcely known relatives - details that are poignantly significant for a family marked by the diaspora of immigration.

In these sensitive touches and in his feel for language's nuances, Huggins is most effective. The play's excursions into lyrical expressionism (the chair's emblematic power, Wilf's symbolic muteness) seem obscure and overweighted. But it is an increasingly absorbing work, and Brigid Larmour's company, especially David Carr and Joy Blakeman, perform superbly.

In Leeds a very different family is struggling with modernity. The Bulgarian Petkoffs of Shaw's Arms and the Man, fresh from a victory over their ancient enemy Serbia, are eager to join a Europe of electric bells, hotels and grand opera. Audiences since 1894 have usually seen this world as a realm of Ruritanian absurdity. Now the place-names strike a different note, although, wisely, director John Harrison does not charge after contemporary allusions. Still, it is hard not to be struck by ironies apparent in the triumph of the Swiss mercenary, Captain Bluntschli, the acme of pragmatic modern materialism, over the locals' atavistic romanticism. Dale Rapley as Bluntschli and Victoria Scarborough as Raina lead well an amiable, competent production.

'The Carver Chair' at the Green Room, Whitworth St, Manchester, to 26 June (061-274 4400)

'Arms and the Man' at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Quarry Hill Mount, Leeds, to 3 July (0532 442111)

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