Alice Trilogy, Royal Court Downstairs, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

When Edward Albee dramatised the life of his adoptive mother in Three Tall Women, he put the figure on stage as a bickering trio of selves in youth, middle years and old age. The conceit brilliantly demonstrated how poor we are at imagining who we will become and how the people we once were may feel like strangers.

Though the Irish dramatist Tom Murphy gives his protagonist a subversive alter ego in the first of the short plays that make up the Alice Trilogy (premiered in a production by Ian Rickson), he takes a more conventional, chronological route in this two-hour piece.

That's probably a wise move, for Alice (played by Juliet Stevenson) is a depressingly consistent creature: there'd be little cause for fundamental disagreement, since life confirms the worst she suspects of it and herself. Until the badly engineered breakthrough in the final drama, the trilogy, for all its flashes of grim humour, comes across as not so much a study of defeatism as an exercise in it.

Up in her murky attic-retreat, the twentysomething Alice is already the fully fledged depressed housewife and mother with a drink problem; a husband whose diligence she finds boring; a sharp but vague yearning to read law; and a sense that her life has become "a slow death". True, she still has a dissident alter ego (wittily portrayed by Derbhle Crotty), but it's no surprise to discover that the fortysomething Alice has not achieved her ambitions.

Staged with a sabotaging bareness, the middle play shows our heroine waylaid en route to her creative-writing class by a teenage lover (Stanley Townsend) who got out of town and became a TV celebrity. A rash letter to him has brought about this encounter, but though for a time she exults in the flattery of it, she fearfully withdraws as soon as she realises he's in earnest. Fair enough - you can't return to an idealised past. But what, apart from the playwright's pessimism, is keeping Alice wedded to her ironing board?

Doubts about the characterisation are intensified by misgivings about the central performance. Imagine Bob Geldof trying to imitate the normal tones of, well, Juliet Stevenson and you'll get some idea of the unnatural sound of this actress's attempts at a sardonic Irish snarl. Thoroughbred Englishness puts a frustrating barrier between the audience and the character.

Matters improve in the final section, where an almost triumphantly bitter Alice, vindicated in her belief that God is an "old terrorist" by the death of her son, monitors herself in an eerily third-person Beckett-like monologue, as she sits with her husband in a restaurant. It's a shame you hear the clattering machinery of contrivance when a waitress's tragic story releases a last-minute flood of sympathetic emotion in the character, for it's here that Stevenson justifies the otherwise perverse casting.

To 10 December (020-7565 5000)