THEATRE / Island race: Paul Taylor on Tim Firth's character-building comedy, Neville's Island in Nottingham

Neville's Island brings together two ubiquitous talents: Tony Slattery, the performer whose answering machine says, 'Yes, I'll do it]', and Tim Firth, the young writer whose word-processor whimpers for mercy. Firth had a fine new play on earlier this month at Alan Ayckbourn's theatre in Scarborough; he has a current TV series, All Quiet on the Preston Front, on BBC 1; and there's another (Once Upon a Time in the North) due out in the spring. Nottingham Playhouse now presents his 1992 play Neville's Island in a deft and highly enjoyable production by Jeremy Sams.

Like The End of the Food Chain, which homed in on the night shift at a food distribution warehouse, Neville's Island focuses on the tensions and power-struggles within a group of Northern males: here, four out-of-condition managers who get stranded while on a team-building outward-bound course in the Lake District. 'Lord of the Files', as one of them quips; and certainly, after a night on the island, that 'mutual assessment round robin' could well turn into a spectator blood-sport.

Just as in the Food Chain, the comedy is driven forward by an impatient, sarcastic figure who runs verbal rings round the others and whose brand of baroque Northern mockery supplies most of the best lines. Except that here, instead of being merely ambivalent about his comic conduit, Firth gradually exposes him as a contemptible nihilist, only happy when dragging everyone down to his own level of spiritual nullity. It's a brave thing to do, since it casts a retrospective sourness over much of the play's humour; it's also brave of Slattery, who draws deeply on the rebarbative, bumptious, smartass side of his persona in his portrayal of Gordon.

That, thanks to Gordon, one of the men (Paul Raffield) ends up comatose with misery about his failures as a repressed, middle-class husband is par for the course. Less expected is that another, Roy, the 'Christian in the cagoule' (beautifully played by James Fleet), finds himself halfway up a tree in only his underpants, brandishing an 18 in knife and repeatedly singing the first line of Oklahoma. But then, he has something on his mind and the play, slyly giving you a false lead as to just what that is, is then free to offer, through him, a sudden jolting glimpse of the blank oblivion that encircles life like the blackness round the island.

Much of the play is uncomplicatedly uproarious, but the ending, with its mock- sacrament and implication that only crack-witted belief can counter Gordon's small-minded nihilism, suggests that Firth may be emulating Ayckbourn's bleakness as well as his productivity.

To 19 Feb. Booking: 0602 419419

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