THEATRE Bedevilled Sheffield Crucible Studio

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Of course one doesn't want to give away the ending to a murder mystery, but Richard Hurford's Bedevilled, in the Sheffield Crucible's wholly welcome season of new work, is going to be partly spoiled by giving away anything that happens after the interval. Not to do so, however, would be impossibly unjust to this teasingly thoughtful play.

The mystery turns upon the events of the night of 18 April 1876 and the death from poison of Charles Delauney Turner Bravo. Of course it has to be his outrageous wife Florence, and the first half is devoted to a raunchy romp detailing Florence's sherry-fuelled career through soldiers, an elderly doctor-lover specialising in "water cures", a cheery abortion, an on-going lesbian affair and marriage to Charles, whom she woos on Brighton promenade in a manner that makes Mesdames Flanders and Hill seem like ingenues. This is all jolly and titillating enough, and the bravura gallantry with which Tracie Bennett skips in and out of her petticoats and demonstrates just what the point of the Victorian bustle was, is much to be admired. However, the japes do lack panache, both in the script (where Wildean precision is clearly not Hurford's forte), in the men's performances, and in the direction (by Stephen Wrentmore), which is beginning to lose invention by the interval.

But the tone of the second half is utterly different. Florence's story is told once more, but this time she is no longer dressed in siren red but sober black. She is temperate and tragic, afflicted by miscarriages and tormented by the memory of an abortion that was traumatic, not cavalier. Her "lesbian lover" Jane (Gilian Cally) is a faithful friend, and her independence steadily eroded under the tedious, fixed drip of convention. Could such a woman kill her husband? Is it not far more plausible that the unstable Charles took his own life? Indeed, is it possible that one of the "invisible" servants, perhaps the maid Mary Anne (played with spirited self-confidence by newcomer Fiona Wass), spiked his water-jug with antimony?

Is OJ guilty? Yes, if you believe so; no, if you don't. This is entirely Hurford's point. We are given two Florences - Florence the tabloid hussy, who is a devil to some and an anti-heroine to others; and Florence the stoical Victorian widow.

Bedevilled is not about appearance and reality, but about appearance and appearance - the devilishness of representation. It is a play which, quite properly, makes us think more and more as it proceeds: about the function of such dramatic genres as caricature and realism, and, in consequence, about truth and justice. Hurford's effort with ideas is excellent, but here his play with these concepts leaves us finally uninvolved with the fate of his characters. They become pieces moved about a theoretical checker- board. Post-modern scepticism may make the problems of truth and justice seem hopelessly intractable, but it doesn't make them go away. Nevertheless, go and think.

To 22 Feb. Booking: 0114 276 9922