Buried Child, Lyttelton, NT, London

My family and other animals
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The Independent Culture

When a girl meets her guy's folks for the first time, the last thing she expects to have to do is introduce the family to one another. But in Sam Shepard's 1978 play Buried Child - revived now, with a terrific feel for its oddball hilarity, by Matthew Warchus - the members of this Illinois clan are mighty reluctant to identify one another. And when the full extent of their screwed-up history is unfurled, you can appreciate why.

When a girl meets her guy's folks for the first time, the last thing she expects to have to do is introduce the family to one another. But in Sam Shepard's 1978 play Buried Child - revived now, with a terrific feel for its oddball hilarity, by Matthew Warchus - the members of this Illinois clan are mighty reluctant to identify one another. And when the full extent of their screwed-up history is unfurled, you can appreciate why.

Myth and sitcom are deliriously entangled in this story, in which young Vince (Sam Troughton) returns for a flying visit to the squalid homestead after six years, while on his way to New Mexico with his girlfriend, Shelly (a deliciously aghast and then manipulative Lauren Ambrose). At first, no one is inclined to recognise the boy. Old Dodge (a splendid M Emmet Walsh), a crustily dismissive dipso at death's door, declares: "I'm nobody's grandfather - least of all yours".

Vince's father, Tilden (Brendan Coyle), seems to have regressed to a kind of child-man status and keeps bringing in mysterious armfuls of sweetcorn and carrots from the back field, where there hasn't been any planting since 1935. His Grandmother Halie (a wonderful display of tipsily tottering folie de grandeur from Elizabeth Franz) is out having lunch with a priest in the hope of getting a monument raised to another son, who, she insists, would have been an all-American hero and man of action, if he hadn't died in a motel room on honeymoon with a despised Catholic.

Meanwhile, Vince's malevolent amputee uncle, Bradley (Sean Murray), takes his false leg off at his own peril. As Halie says, he's actually "a pushover - especially now," a gag that escalates to the level of the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore one-legged Tarzan sketch when Shelly pinches his prosthesis to use as a defence weapon.

Played on a set where the homestead (described by Shelly as like a Norman Rockwell cover) is nothing more than a frame open to the elements, and subtly underscored by dreamy guitar music, Warchus's production does handsome justice both to the wild and wacky humour and to the disturbing mythic undertones. In his capable care, these elements are mutually reinforcing.

The play is partly about how a denial of the past blocks the route to the future. Old Dodge refuses to accept that he has any heritage that can be traced. In the rear, there is just "a long line of corpses! There's not a living soul behind me. Not a one. Who's holding me in their memory? Who gives a damn about bones in the ground?" Ergo, he is just what he is now. Period.

But it emerges that there are those (himself, too, perhaps) who give more than a damn, though the old man irresponsibly ensures that Vince - whose genetic inheritance erupts in a violent outburst in the final act - will never escape from the stifling dynastic determinism, by bequeathing him the house in the oral will he delivers just before he expires.

This is a very funny piece - both visually, as in the spectacle of Halie rummaging for the whisky flask in the priest's trouser pockets, and verbally as in Dodge telling Shelly "there's nothing a man can't do. You dream it up and he can do it. Anything," and she dryly replying: "You've tried, I guess." Highly recommended.

In rep to 15 December (020-7452 3000)

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