Carver, Arcola Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

The author has found a more sensitive soulmate in the veteran theatre director Bill Gaskill who, in his first professional production for 10 years, has adapted and staged five of the stories. Originally developed as a project with second-year students at Rada, Carver respects the integrity of the individual works; it makes frank use of the narrative voice and it sticks to the author's words.

You might think this would be restrictive. But the situations in Carver's stories display an extraordinary gift for drama that would be betrayed if you raised their volume or temperature or contrived to make them "stagey" as opposed to stage-worthy. This show succeeds because of a basic harmony of sensibility between the author and a director/adapter noted for his purity of focus.

Carver evokes the struggles of defeated, undistinguished lives through the eloquence of what is left unspoken. In What's in Alaska?, two married couples get stoned smoking a hookah. The women (Milesande Cook and Kelli Kerslake) keep tittering for no apparent reason. The banal talk always circles back to the snacks they are eating. Almost nothing is said - and yet we still get sudden, disturbingly casual glimpses of slow marital disintegration and existential nothingness.

In Cathedral, Bruce Alexander is hilarious as the small-minded bigot who feels threatened when a blind friend of his wife's (an amusingly sonorous and imposing Jack Klaff) comes to stay. Things change when he has to admit failure on being asked to describe a cathedral and consents to having his hand guided by the blind man in drawing one.

For my taste, Alexander is too sitcom-like in the otherwise excellent Put Yourself in My Shoes, in which a resentful elderly couple are visited at Christmas by a younger pair who once rented their house. There's a revealing moment when they look out at some carol singers whose music drifts away as they give this home a miss. Throughout, Gaskill's production lets these stories speak for themselves.

Until 6 August (020-7503 1646)