Country Music, Upstairs, Royal Court, London

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The Independent Culture

Simon Stephens has done time - not as a prisoner himself, but as a dramatist who has worked with prisoners. The insights he has gleaned enrich his short but intricately woven new play, Country Music.

The piece spotlights four fateful moments in the life of Jamie Carris, an engaging but violent south Londoner. The play unfolds in a series of tightly focused two-handers, set before, during and after the prison sentences he has served for glassing one man and for killing another. The play then loops back to the illusory promise of the day prior to the events it has dramatised.

The proceedings begin in 1983. The 18-year-old Jamie (splendidly played at every stage of his development by Lee Ross) has just stolen a Ford Cortina and is elated at the prospect of driving Lynsey (Sally Hawkins), a 15-year-old truant from a residential home, to Southend.

The play operates on a principle of artfully withheld information. For example, we learn here that Jamie has glassed a person called Gary Noolan, but it's not until the final scene, which backtracks to an earlier session with Lynsey, that we discover the sordid, mother-related reason for this violence. As in life, the momentous is not announced by thunderous chords. It's a key factor in Jamie's relationship with Lynsey that she found him hanging in the home after a failed suicide; it's characteristic of Stephens's policy of darting suggestiveness that the incident is first referred to in a quick, stinging taunt.

The two middle scenes are the most wrenching. In one, Jamie is visited in the fifth year of his sentence by his stepbrother, Matty (Calum Callaghan), who has to break the desolate news that his wife and child have moved away with another man. In the second, set after his release in 2004, Jamie confronts the 17-year-old daughter, Emma (Laura Elphinstone), whom he has not seen since she was a toddler.

Stephens does not sentimentalise his protagonist. You get a painful sense of the way that he has damaged these lives - and yet, as you watch Ross's smile of delight at his new-found child slowly replaced by choking desperation when he realises that lost time cannot be redeemed, you ache with pity for him. You also realise that even his better instincts have rebounded on him. The estrangement from his family began, for example, because of a decent paternal impulse. He did not like to see his four-year-old daughter body-searched by the prison guards. He put a stop to her visits to spare her that ordeal.

Elphinstone beautifully conveys the apprehension of the daughter - the kindly caution of a girl who refuses to be swept into intimacy with a man who is now a stranger to her. "I've wanted to see you every day. All the time," declares the distraught Jamie. To which Emma makes the impeccably fair, bleak and unanswerable response: "That isn't my fault."

To 17 July (020-7565 5000)