A Prayer for my daughter, Young Vic, London

Thin blue lines in a dated drama
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The Independent Culture

The Young Vic kicks off its 2008 season with a revival of Thomas Babe's 1978 drama A Prayer for My Daughter. Dominic Hill's production is sweaty with immediacy; the performances pack a huge punch; and the set, by Giles Cadle, is startling.

There are just two persistent puzzles. One relates to the design. The theatre's main auditorium has been dramatically reconfigured in traverse fashion so that the audience sits in steeply raked banks on either side of the grubby police office in downtown New York where the interrogations take place. Two lofty flights of stairs rise towards and beyond an overhanging storey. The mystery is why, having gone to the trouble of creating this attention-seeking set, the production makes so little use of it. Apart from during the entrances at the start and the exits at the end, the whole upper level is ignored.

A more pressing question relates to the material. Despite the clearly impassioned commitment of everyone involved, the decision to pour so much devoted work into so embarrassingly dated a drama remains bewildering to this reviewer. The play starts off looking and sounding like a police procedural. A pair of cops – Kelly (Matthew Marsh) and Delasante (Corey Johnson) – drag in two suspects in the murder of an old Jewish lady, the owner of a dry-cleaning shop. The burly, gay Sean (Sean Chapman), who turns out to be an emotionally damaged Vietnam vet, is partner in crime with his "daughter" and protégé, the waif-like and wasted Jimmy, whose twisting, twitching mood-swings and mix of half-druggy cackling punk and half-angelic visionary are brought to life by the brilliant Colin Morgan.

As the tough-talking cops resort to unorthodox interrogation methods – whisky-fuelled beatings; sharing a fix with the suspect; and a possibly homoerotic strip search – it becomes clear that verisimilitude is being conveniently relaxed so that the focus can shift from solving the crime to showing how the two sexually ambiguous low-lifes help to put the defensive and mutually suspicious cops in touch with the feminine side of their natures. The problem is that you feel that Babe started off with the theme and with the stagey, set-piece, results and worked backwards from them.

Despite excellent acting from Matthew Marsh, as the seething cop who's in denial about the suicidal daughter jabbering with a gun in her mouth at the end of the phone, and from Sean Chapman, who delivers, with a beautifully understated pain and sensitive femininity, his character's speech about cradling a corpse in Vietnam and his conflicted, semi-hostile attitude to the woman he feels living inside him, the implausibilities pile up, the interrogations take on the air of encounter sessions and the setting, just after Independence Day and in an office festooned with tired streamers and patriotic flags, is required to support more political weight than it can bear. Uncertain laughter greets such sights as the tableau of the hardbitten Kelly going all gooey and tentatively experimental with the half-naked punk curled up on his knee.

The piece received its UK premiere at the Royal Court. It put me in mind of another Royal Court play, Ron Hutchinson's Rat in the Skull, which seizes on the uncomfortably intimate relation of cop to suspect with profundity and sharp pertinence. It explores the complex, deeply ambiguous reasons why an RUC inspector, dispatched to England to interrogate an IRA suspect and turn him informer, chooses to throw his career away, and flush the prosecution case down the pan, by subjecting the Catholic to a ferocious beating the moment they are alone. By contrast, if the reason for reviving A Prayer for My Daughter arose from an equation of Vietnam with Iraq, with the implication that corruption spreads from unjust wars, then it fails to persuade. It comes across as a period piece rather than a play for today.

To March 15 (020-7922 2922; www.youngvic.org)