THEATRE: Between waking and sleeping

Morning and Evening Hampstead Theatre
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The Independent Culture
In one of the short so-called "intermezzos" that are featured between the acts of Morning and Evening, two men in suits discuss the fact that one of them has just seen a shooting star.

A stroke of luck? Well, not if you are simply unable to settle on what to wish for; and when the friend says that he would have no problem deciding, he's sharply reminded that he wasn't the one who made the sighting. To wish for "all of it" would be too vague, but then again you have to plump for something straight away or it doesn't work.

In next to no time, the "lucky" star-spotter is launched on a generalised existential gripe, bewailing his lack of a sense of purpose and his tendency to drift from one day to the next. All of which leads to the paradoxical punchline of his wishing he had never seen the damn star.

The ironies and contradictions in the human search for happiness is the main preoccupation of this piece by the Danish writer Astrid Saalbach. For those who can't be weaned from the pleasures of continuous narrative, this would not constitute the most satisfying of evenings, since the play, at times, has the feel of a connect-the-dot puzzle rather than of a fully dramatised story. In John Dove's attractively acted production, with its set of receding proscenium arches, it comes across, however, as a work that is as interested in truths as in tricksiness.

Morning and Evening ends at an alfresco dinner party where the natural order seems to have gone haywire (there's a deafening dawn chorus in the middle of the night; the stars all disappear; and, as the lights fade, you hear the roar of an angel). But the various vignettes that precede this seem to be bound together by a weird dream logic as well as by realistic narrative links. Details resurface in oddly distorted forms from one scene to the next. An artist is told she is moulting in one sketch; hairs crop up in the sauce at an unconnected dinner party later. The same actress (Helen Baxendale) plays, in the first scene, a young, seriously ill woman whose delight in the world has been intensified by the threat of death and, in the last, a fraud who is only happy if she's winning credit for coping with pretend diseases and disabilities.

Saalbach's unoriginal but piquantly illustrated point seems to be that there's no necessary link between happiness and the "fairness" of the hand fate has dealt you. "I just thought you had so much more than people in other countries," Minna tells her pregnant daughter (Alex Kingston), explaining why she preferred to save the world rather than pay attention to her child. She's a globe-trotting do-gooder who manages, in Polly Adams's excellent performance, to be radiantly complacent, even now, when questioning how much good she did. She has the gift of happiness but that, crucially, is not the same as having the talent to impart it.

n To 15 Apr, Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (0171-722 9301)

Paul Taylor