THEATRE: After October; Chichester Festival Theatre

Rodney Ackland had less cause than most dramatists to think fondly of reviewers. The savage reception of his 1952 play, The Pink Room, effectively put paid to his writing career, so who could begrudge him the moment of revenge he engineered? Absolute Hell, his 1988 revision of the piece, featured a crabby, bald lesbian critic being treated to a tirade and a drink in the face. In Keith Baxter's enjoyable revival of the dramatist's 1936 play, After October, we see that, even in his twenties, Ackland felt the need to defend his work by attacking its anticipated detractors first. I am not referring here to the scene where the young playwright hero, enraged by the dreadful notices for his first West End play, bawls abuse down the phone at the author of one of them and wishes him a lingering death from leprosy, only to discover that he has got the wrong number. It is in other ways, and with a persistence that is almost counter-productive, that After October labours to convince you that it would be a grave error to dislike it.

The play is set in the Thirties in the gently threadbare Hampstead flat of retired actress Rhoda Monkhams. Played with a lovely, stoical scattiness by Dorothy Tutin, Rhoda has been left in penurious widowhood - forced to initiate herself into the mysteries of the vacuum cleaner and to master the elaborate evasions of a life lived on credit. The one person who may be able to save this arty family from the bailiff is her dramatist son, Clive (attractively performed by Tutin's real-life son, Nick Waring).

Ackland assembles a sizeable group of people whose hopes are hanging on Clive's play being a hit. These range from his sister, Joan (Maria Miles) - who, freed from dependency on her philistine of a lover, will be able to attend art school - to the depressive paying guest Frankie (an excellent Samantha Holland), who will be able to marry Clive and get rid of the well-meaning but boring Brian (Gregory Floy) with his stuffy old colonial slang ("feeling pretty bobbish, thanks") and his formulaic generosity.

Though the oft-made comparisons with Chekhov are more than a touch excessive (Ackland can resist judging his characters and does not invest them with the contradictions and inconsistencies that animate Chekhov's people), the play very successfully creates the sense of a full, chaotic bohemian household. It pulls you into the rich hubbub by realistically leaving some things unexplained - such as why, say, his sisters call Clive "Timmy". Keith Baxter's production keeps a sensitive control of the atmosphere and manages some beautiful transitions, as when the desolation of the dawn breaking on the penultimate scene is accentuated by the sound of a barking dog before an orchestral version of "Pick Yourself Up, Dust Yourself Off" jerks the mood back to willed optimism.

In Present Laughter, Noel Coward created a fall guy in nerdy Rowland Maule, whose function was to represent everything that Coward loathed about the earnest, socially minded playwright and to receive a huge piece of Coward/Essendine's mind. After October doesn't get up to anything quite so shameless, though the presence of Murray Melvin's spongeing, self-obsessed poet serves to predispose us to the talents of the hero he patronises. If the play that flopped was a propagandist piece, the play that a wiser and more human Clive is sitting down to write at the end, in order to save his family, is clearly After October. Which, of course, rather blackmails us into liking Ackland's play of the same name.

To 31 May. Bookings: 01243-781312

Paul Taylor

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