The time is out of joint

Paul Taylor applauds two powerful new plays in which the central characters cannot break free of their pasts

The hero of Simply Disconnected, the new Simon Gray play, is in a sort of hell, having kept life at arm's length for so long that it won't re-embrace him when he begs to be taken back. The heroine of Portia Coughlan, a new play from Ireland by Marina Carr, is in a kind of limbo, having lost the better half of her life 15 years earlier when her adolescent twin brother, to whom she was incestuously close, drowned in the Belmont River. Both plays are haunted by the past; both are mordently funny as well as bleak. And both are favoured with superb central performances.

Alan Bates has now starred in nearly a dozen of Gray's works, including the 1975 hit Otherwise Engaged to which Simply Disconnected is the sequel. With artful twists and a darker tone now, the new play follows precisely the same pattern as its predecessor, showing you a fastidious man, to whom other people are at most vague irritants, plagued by a string of unwanted visitors. Twenty-one years on, Bates's publisher Hench still has to twitch his features into a comic approximation of friendly concern; he still has a pathological problem with names and is as provokingly polite as ever.

What is new is the sense, wonderfully communicated by the actor, that this man has gone dead inside. Presenting him with a drug addict son he never knew he had (the result of a casual Seventies-style affair that, it turns out, has destroyed several lives), the play dangles a desolating parody of redemption before its hero and when Hench realises that he has left it too late to make amends, the howl of grief and rage Bates emits is all the more harrowing for the way he then congeals back into his civilised deadness. There are other fine performances, including Alan Bates's real- life son Benedick as the screwed-up, stammering, coke-snorting son and Charles Kay, all prissy, pedantic outrage as the schoolmaster brother accused of hanky-panky in the changing-room. Always partial to a running joke, Gray now has some of them doing a marathon stint across both plays; although, while there are certain pleasures only on offer to those who know Otherwise Engaged, Simply Disconnected stands up well by itself.

Richard Wilson's adroit staging declines the option of hinting that all those uncanny deja vu equivalences to the day 21 years earlier are happening inside Hench's head. The inside of Portia Coughlan's head seems, however, to provide the location for the first and last acts of Marina Carr's arrestingly talented play. This affects Gary Hynes's poetic, non-naturalistic staging, which is dominated by a bleak, billowing backdrop of binbag-liner curtains on to which the reflection of rippling waves is eerily thrown. Haunted by the girl-like treble voice of her dead twin, Derbhle Crotty's stunning Portia - defiant beyond inhibition and looking like a changeling sprite with her slip of a body and great mane of pre-Raphaelite hair - proceeds through her life as if it were now some bitterly pointless exercise.

The last show from the Grassmarket Project, 20/52, focused on the real- life case of Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett, for whom the psychological complications of losing a twin are horribly intensified by the fact that the death took place in police custody. In her willingness to alienate the rest of the world and in the fierce exclusivity of her passion, Portia recalled that piece. Here, though, the intimations of madness through inbreeding, of a fable-like curse in the blood and of some special superior sensitivity in the twins struck me as a bit over-sold on the poetry of the idea. More impressive is the scathing, down-to-earth humour of the beautifully played supporting cast, as when an old tart says of her kindly weed of a husband "Senchil wasn't born, he were knitted on a wet Sunday afternoon."

'Simply Disconnected', Minerva, Chichester, Sussex (01243 781312); 'Portia Coughlan', Royal Court, London, SW1 (0171-730 1745), both to 1 June

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