Conversations After A Burial | Almeida Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Was it just my imagination, or did I recently see a postcard-sized advertisement for Yasmina Reza's mega-hit play, Art, in a seedy West End telephone box? It was stuck up there amid the various offers of massage and bondage, straightfacedly giving you a number to ring if you wanted 90 minutes of satisfying laughter therapy.

Was it just my imagination, or did I recently see a postcard-sized advertisement for Yasmina Reza's mega-hit play, Art, in a seedy West End telephone box? It was stuck up there amid the various offers of massage and bondage, straightfacedly giving you a number to ring if you wanted 90 minutes of satisfying laughter therapy.

From the title of the latest Reza piece to hit these shores, you might think that an equivalent ad would have to peddle one hour and three-quarters of grief counselling. But Conversations After a Burial - a 1987 drama now given its English premiere at the Almeida - has the sense to realise that funerals are just as likely to produce heated wrangling and randiness as depression. As Leopold Bloom reflects in the cemetery sequence in Ulysses: "You might pick up a young widow here. Men like that. Love among the tombstones."

In fact, a couple in Reza's play go the whole hog on the sex-and-death front by beginning to make love on the grave of the newly deceased. It has to be said, though, that this is much the most animated gesture in a piece that jumps rather stiffly through the familiar hoops of post-mortem drama, while musing fitfully and preciously on the nature of creativity.

Three middle-class fortysomethings (all significantly unmarried) gather in the Loiret countryside for the obsequies of their evidently tricky father. They are joined by their benignly philosophical uncle (David Calder) and the wife he married late in life, whose outsider's nervous effusiveness is well conveyed by Claire Bloom. The catalyst is Clare Holman's Elisa. The 35-year-old ex-mistress of one of the brothers (Paul Higgins's resentful adolescent of a literary critic), this attractive woman is passionately in love with the other (a self-defeated former wunderkind played by Matthew Marsh). Her awkward, arousing presence exacerbates the critic's already complicated feelings of disappointment in the sibling he once hero-worshipped, while driving Amanda Root's Edith - the lonely sister who has mismanaged her love life - to an embarrassing outburst of wailing need.

In England, we are encountering Reza's plays out of chronological sequence. Conversations After a Burial (translated by Christopher Hampton) is, in fact, her first stage work. By comparison with the chic minimalism of Art, it is a pretty conventional ensemble piece, despite the self-regarding chat about writing blocks and vicarious ambitions and devastated fathers. So, to use an analogy from the Shakespeare canon, it's like suddenly being presented with the formulaic Two Gentlemen of Verona after you've already witnessed the originality of As You Like It.

Howard Davies's sensitive production keeps adroit command of the fluctuations of atmosphere in this mood piece, though it can't stop the shift from the refulgence of a freakishly warm November day to a dark-night-of-the-soul storm from feeling like a blush-making cliché. Nor can the fine acting distract you from the pretentiously "literary" quality of much of the dialogue ("I've never done anything so contrary to reason" cries Elisa, sounding more like a book than a woman who is about to embark on grave-top nookie).

Above all, the piece fails to persuade you that the strange, out-of-time experience that seems to bring a kind of resolution at the close, is earned in moral or dramatic terms. On the theme of the tragicomic journey of self-discovery families must make in the aftermath of a death, Conversations is no competition for such plays as Richard Nelson's New England and Tom Murphy's The Wake.

To 21 Oct (020-7359 4404)

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