Comfort Me With Apples, Hampstead Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Beauty of Bath, Glory of the West, Morgan Sweets, Ashton Bitters - a litany of the names of apples recurs like an elegiac refrain through Nell Leyshon's haunting play. It is set in autumn on an orchard farm in Somerset and the family's dependence on the trees and land is reflected in Mike Britton's expressionist design which dissolves the distinction between indoors and outdoors, perching the kitchen of the impoverished farmhouse on an undulating floor of apple-strewn earth.

In this heightened atmosphere of autumnal decay, we witness the demise of an ancient way of life. The head of the house has just died and old family wounds have been re-opened. Glowering in her nightdress and wellies, his fierce widow Irene (excellent Veronica Roberts) is confused and agitated, but she's determined not to relax her iron grip over her cowed, middle-aged son Roy, and her simple-minded brother, Len.

The play captures the moment when the neglected orchard starts to slip beyond repair. The banks are threatening to foreclose. The prospect of property developers looms. Then Roy's twin sister Brenda arrives, along with his former girlfriend Linda - both of them expelled from the house three years earlier because of the mother's paranoid fear of losing her son. As the drama inches towards a showdown in the orchard, we perceive that the family is not just the victim of social forces: it has been, in part, the author of its own destruction.

I missed Comfort Me With Apples when it was premiered in 2005 and I'm very glad to have had the chance to catch up with Lucy Bailey's beautifully judged Hampstead production which has been revived with a pitch-perfect new cast and is now on tour. The spare dialogue with which Leyshon equips these emotionally inarticulate characters has a distinctive lyrical quality and the repetitions - provided by the awkward, nagging questions and the recurring anxieties of Graham Turner's touching Len and by the frequent dips into folklore - give the piece an unforced, poetic structure.

Penny Layden skilfully brings out the principled toughness and injured neediness of the rejected daughter, and Jonathan McGuinness radiates mother-dominated defeat as the son who summons up the courage to snap the apron strings only when it is too late.

PAUL TAYLOR

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