Five Gold Rings, Almeida Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

You might think, given the title, that Joanna Laurens' play is a Christmas treat, but it is in only one respect. If you're burdened with tedious relatives over the holidays, send them to Five Gold Rings and tell them it's profound and beautiful, and they must listen closely to every word. You will have a wonderful time imagining their reaction, and they will never bother you again.

The floor of Es Devlin's set is a sundial which, considering the play is set in a desert, makes about as much sense as equipping a fish with an umbrella. But the desert is a metaphorical one that two English couples reach in their car one Christmas Eve. The elderly Henry, whose wife deserted him (see what I mean?) long ago lives there, though his time and the water are running out. His two sons, Simon and Daniel, have come to stay, with their respective wives, Miranda and Freyja, all inexplicably having worn their best clothes on the long journey. But before long those clothes are shed by Daniel and Miranda, who find a neat solution to his impotence and her childlessness.

Plot, however, isn't so much the point as the language in which all five rant and row and analyse their marriages. Laurens, who won awards for her previous, first play, The Three Birds, calls it non-naturalistic, but many of us could supply a shorter word. Daniel repels his wife's advances with "There's no point in you/lying like a wishbone,/always lowering the looped horns of/your youandus uterus at me;/legs open, for a man/soft as cheese!" Well, not if the cheese is pecorino, but one gets the idea. Sometimes the men talk in a kind of cod-child dialect: "Think of the oftentimes when small I was/and taked I a sandwich, some water,/and sitted on the wall outside and wouldn't/never come back in." Sometimes the elegant Miranda speaks, in her usual cultured tones, like an old black mammy: "Like a child, Henry, you a child like on the first day at school;/ ... You can't lie on your own sons no more."

The first-night audience, thick with guests of the sponsor, listened to all this politely, but giggles broke out when Daniel complained, of his anaphrodisiac wife: "She sings my stick asleep." Everyone, though, was silent at Laurens' wordplay, the sort that might be made by a bright child or a dim foreigner. "You'll say wait and see," says Daniel. "Pray./But I'm fed up with wait-watching." Miranda suggests to Daniel they take the car. He responds: "I'll drive you wild." The stage directions indicate "slight laughter."

The unfortunate actors in Michael Attenborough's production have my sympathy, but Damian Lewis, who was so good as the tortured Soames Forsyte on TV, has my admiration as well. Against the odds, he manages to make the character of Daniel, as absurd as the rest, into a believably dignified and tormented figure. One leaves the refurbished Almeida feeling only relief and the conviction that bigger bars and swankier toilets are less deserving of money than playwrights who can do good work and directors who have the sense to know it.

To 17 January (020-7359 4404)

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