Festen, Lyric Shaftesbury, London

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The Independent Culture

If ever a production deserved a West End transfer, it's this splendid stage version of the Dogme film Festen. Skilfully adapted by David Eldridge and impeccably directed by Rufus Norris, it began life in March at the Almeida, where it received the kind of critical superlatives that can hang like an albatross, rather than garlands, round a show's neck. But I'm delighted to report that it has not buckled under the weight. With cast changes in three of the leading male roles, the show now arrives at the Lyric Theatre, a venue where the necessary sense of intimacy - of shared social embarrassment with the guests at these 60th birthday celebrations of a prosperous Danish patriarch - is magically preserved.

Luke Mably has replaced Jonny Lee Miller as Christian, the eldest son who turns a toast into a shattering denunciation of his father for repeatedly raping him and his twin sister when they were children. Though he doesn't have the natural charisma of his predecessor, Mably draws you to the character with the strength of his quiet injured intensity. He alternates finely between surges of reckless action and passive resistance, as when, in an excruciatingly protracted sequence, he just sits like a lost soul at the head of the table, while the rest of the family - led by Jane Asher's grimly poised mother - munch on with their main course in dogged denial.

The production achieves a brilliant equilibrium between the poetic effects that intensify your awareness of the long-term psychological damage done, and the grotesque comedy of social insensitivity. The father (now played Stephen Moore) used to rape his children at bath time, and the noise of running water and of a child's unnerving laughter echoes through Paul Arditti's excellent soundscape.

The tingling sound of a knife on a wine-glass for the start of speeches you come to dread, also resonates, eerily multiplied. In an acute touch, Christian's little niece, who flits around the play in pyjamas or a fairy outfit, haunts him as though she were an apparition of his now-deceased twin at the age when they were both abused.

This symbolism is counterpoised by the black farce of boorish, table-thumping, conga-line-forming Danish customs, of routine racism against the black guest (Patrick Robinson), and a curiously ironic adult childishness. The shock of the revelations is all the more devastating for being played off against the serene obliviousness of the deaf, doddering grandfather (Sam Beazley) and his determination to tell a "blue" anecdote, and the self-regard of middle-aged Poul, who quails: "I suffer from extreme depressions, and this isn't helping me one bit."

As Christian's brother Michael, Rory Kinnear makes a very credible transition from accident-prone, resentful blusterer to a man jolted into maturity by this ordeal. In a shrewdly understated performance, Stephen Moore is repellently insidious as a feet-of-clay patriarch who has the nerve to twist the consequences of his actions into the causes why Christian should not now be credited. When asked by his son to account for the abuse, he replies that "it was all you were good for". Highly recommended.

Booking to 15 January 2005 (0870 890 1107)

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