THEATRE / Daddy's gone a' hunting: JEFFREY WAINWRIGHT on Father's Day

'MEMORY', writes Luis Bunuel in his autobiography, 'is what makes our lives . . . Without it we are nothing.' The most powerful moments of Maureen Lawrence's new play, Father's Day, come when Dilys Laye as Connie, backed up defensively against the sink she has faced for more than 50 years, refuses to accept that this might be true of George, her husband, who now sits naked in his chair thinking night is day. 'I don't believe there's nothing there]' she cries, and again later, recalling a dreadful story from George's childhood about his own father, she insists his memories are 'all still there'. I could not have been the only one brought to immediate tears by Dilys Laye's harrowing delivery of these lines.

George's status as a human being - even Connie slips into 'was' instead of 'is' - is the first great problem Maureen Lawrence poses for us. But besides that is the equally demanding matter of how he lives on in those around him: Connie, and their daughter Barbara, an unmarried schoolteacher who complains that she is herself 'on the brink of being old'.

Every day has been Father's Day for George. The notion that 'I'm the boss' still fires in his brain, and the flashbacks show him as a tyrannical husband and father who pursued his own meticulous systems of standards and pride as obsessively as his own pleasure at the dog-track. The sheer physical vehemence of the man is intimidatinqly conveyed by Richard Mayes. Only towards the end of the play, when we see him weep for his redundancy and the collapse of the firm he worked for, is his sense of self-worth cracked. He was forced to live 'so cramped', says Connie, and though she is his main victim, she has an intuitive understanding of how the exercise of domestic power provides his self-respect. This power, she says, is what he construes as love.

Connie is wiser than her educated and articulate daughter, though Barbara's fury at her mother's oppression is evidently justified. She too is victim and beneficiary of the power George thinks of as love. She owes her education and social betterment to his pride and it is him she most resembles: no one was 'fuller of himself', says Connie, except Barbara.

Transfixing as the play is it does lack narrative, and therefore some dramatic drive. It shows a portrait rather than a process, and becomes, especially in the long first half, repetitious. Still, Penny Ciniewicz's fine production features not only strong and brave acting but some excellent design. Greg Turbyne's lighting combines pools of shadow with some unflinching white harshness, and Paul Andrews' evocation of Leeds terraces as dolls' houses, over which Mayes towers like a colossus, has a magical Chagall-like quality.

There are no answers provided to the agonising problems forced before us by this play, nor is there a single frame of understanding of its situations which will entirely fit. But it is an experience which, demanding as it is, should not be missed.

Until 21 August at West Yorkshire Playhouse (0532-442111).