Alice Trilogy, Royal Court, London

Tales of (another) desperate housewife
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The Independent Culture

The Court's outgoing artistic director, Ian Rickson, hasn't personally staged quite as many plays here as one might have wished. On top form, he is a brilliantly sensitive and haunting director, and the good news is his touch remains utterly assured in his first premiere in the main house since April last year. Penned by Ireland's revered playwright Tom Murphy, this is strange and sad triptych showing glimpses of a well-to-do but despairing, disturbed housewife. In 1980, we see Juliet Stevenson's skinny, edgy Alice (pictured) slipping into her attic, leaving the radio burbling downstairs, distantly audible along with screeches from her dull husband Bill's bird cages. Stevenson is talking to herself, slumping in an old armchair and sliding a whisky bottle from behind the cushion.

Then, out of the darkness, steps a pale, moon-faced, second woman (Derbhle Crotty) who starts to question Alice. She's like a weird conflation of a quiz-show host and a risqué imaginary friend, a comforting shrink and malign inner voice who asks if she would kill herself or ever do anything crazy regarding her children.

In 1995, we see Stevenson cutting across a shadowy, high-walled lane, suddenly greeted by an old flame, Stanley Townsend's smiling yet menacingly fixated Jimmy. He is now a TV star, but deeply unhappy too.

Alice has, apparently, written to him seeking a reunion, unless this is all in her (or his) imagination. Finally, in 2005, she and Bill (John Stahl) are stuck at an airport, as if in some ghostly white, godforsaken limbo, waiting to collect their son's corpse. She barely hears her spouse's attempts at conversation, wrapped in her own internal monologue.

Rickson's production is spare, eerie and gripping. A potential suburban Medea, Stevenson has a frightening feral rage, and Tom Murphy's law of increasingly hopelessness has bleak potency. However this play, which is too obviously indebted to Beckett's Not I, can be poetically laboured, and has a somewhat forced glint of hope at the end.

To 10 Dec, 020 7565 5000

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