Hamlet, New Ambassadors, London

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The Independent Culture

It's a night that has, if not a modern feel, then certainly a young one. There is a well-crafted generation gap, evinced in Michael Cronin's harrumphing Polonius, his usual verbose self at court, but a distant, draconian authority figure to Ophelia and Laertes. Stephen Unwin's straight-ahead staging for his English Touring Theatre Company clears the decks for a production of some clarity, traditionally dressed by Mark Bouman.

Unwin will surely snare the attention of the teenage student with his switch of focus away from the epic to the accessible territory of dysfunction and isolation within the family. In this respect, it's an ideal production for the beginner. But it's also rewarding for the seasoned Hamlet watcher who had perhaps forgotten how refreshing - and illuminating - a break from the many excellent "concept" Hamlets can be. In an unremittingly dark environment designed by Michael Vale and lit by Michael Rippeth, nothing is allowed to fudge the issue of clarity.

Stoppard's is an intellectually nimble Hamlet. He creates an excellent trajectory, starting as the stroppy yet cosseted prince at court, his youthfulness revealed in a wounded, verge-of-tears first soliloquy. In delicious contrast, Ben Warwick's brittle man-boy Laertes is a picture of Nordic wholesomeness. Alice Patten is a touching Ophelia, convincing in those difficult mad scenes.

Only once does the small playing area feel crowded, during the play within the play, The Mousetrap (trivia buffs may remember that, 54 years ago, this house was the first home to the Agatha Christie play). The cinematic detail in the performances that has so enriched the night becomes muddied just at the moment where one wants to flick from face to face to gauge reactions. Clarity here would have benefited Anita Dobson's Gertrude; her high-wire act, balancing her role as attentive new wife with strong maternal instincts, is compelling.

To call this Hamlet unpretentious would make it sound stolid, and this brisk production has much more snap than that. Its greatest strength is to remind us that the play is indeed the thing.

To 22 April (0870 060 6627)

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