Days of Wine and Roses, Donmar Warehouse, London

A play with a lot of bottle
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The Independent Culture

My goodness, you feel like a stiff drink at the end of Days of Wine and Roses. This is both a straightforward and a back-handed tribute to the power of Owen McCafferty's immensely involving stage adaptation of the 1962 Blake Edwards' movie (starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick) and the brilliance and tact of Peter Gill's direction. I bumped into the latter on the way in. He revealed that he had not seen the film. That's a mark of directorial genius for you: knowing what you don't need to know and keeping it that way.

Originally by J P Miller, the piece (a two-hander, peerlessly played) tracked a relationship from its chafing outset - when the young Donal and Mona meet at Belfast airport where they are (independently) waiting for the plane to Heathrow and the chance of a new life in London - to its desperate terminus, by way of a sustained stint of joint alcoholism.

This is not égoïsme à deux, exactly; more a mutual lack of self-esteem posing as (and sometimes genuinely being) love. Neither McCafferty's text nor Gill's pitch-perfect production raise their voice unduly. The show is harrowing because its eloquence is so oddly measured. And rooted, too: rooted in the Northern Irishness of the couple. It's moving beyond expression when, at the end, Donal decides to abandon the perhaps irreclaimable Mona (now living in a bedsit hell of dipsomania) and return, with their neglected little boy, to a Belfast just entering the murderous 1970s Troubles. Out of the frying pan... but then, both the adaptation and the production leave beautifully positioned question marks dangling, at the close, over the life expectancy of both parties.

Peter McDonald is simply wonderful as Donal, who is trying to struggle onwards and upwards from being an exploited bookies' clerk, and who has to wade through a world where a drink is both the lingua franca and a respite from nervous exhaustion. He is almost audibly balding, the kind of curiously attractive man that not everyone would fall for, but if you fell for him, would cause you to topple hook, line and sinker. Given the theme: brilliant casting.

The ravishing and uncannily accurate Anne-Marie Duff plays his wife, Mona. She takes to the bottle, initially, from a combination of convivially wanting to share a bit of his life; having to do so, socially, to help him improve their lot; and abject loneliness - the unenviable position of a woman stuck in a flat with a small child, in this period, bringing home to you with a jolt that not all London was Swinging.

Her tippling becomes defiant. She graduates into becoming the guilty party, driving hubby into acts of reluctant violence. Duff's superbly unsentimental performance communicates one of the keys to her behaviour: drinking gives Mona an identity, even as it simultaneously destroys her.

The domestic claustrophobia is, at times, offset by violent scenes on Westminster Bridge where Mona stands in a kind of granular haze of suggestiveness. Will she throw herself off it?

A beautiful production, and all praise to Michael Grandage for commissioning it. It highlights an ingredient that makes Grandage that rare creature, a great director who is also a great artistic director: marvellous taste.

To 2 April (0870 060 6624)