Happy Days, Arts Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

This is an evening that reverberates with theatrical memories. In 1976, Peter Hall inaugurated the National Theatre's new building on the South Bank with an acclaimed production of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, starring Peggy Ashcroft. Now, a quarter of a century on, he is having a second stab at this dramatic masterpiece at the Arts Theatre. And that just happens to be the very venue where, in 1955, he directed the landmark English premiere of Waiting for Godot, the Beckett play that offered a groundbreaking demonstration of (in Tynan's words at the time) "how much drama can do without and still exist".

For this expert and loving re-examination of Happy Days, he has cast Felicity Kendal as Winnie, the woman who is buried up to her waist in a mound of earth in the first act and - for such is progress - up to her neck in the second. With a striking set by his daughter Lucy, Hall reinvigorates the shock value of that (by now) classic metaphor for life as a process of gradual entombment. We are presented here with a more intrusive, aerial perspective on Winnie than normal. She juts out from the centre of a tilted-up spiral of sparsely tussocked earth that looks like the electric ring of a Baby Belling cooker as magnified and re-imagined by the Surrealist movement. But this stage picture sets up a clever false expectation, for, despite appearances, this is not a play or a production that affords you the right to look down on its protagonist.

Kendal is a very English actress, but I'm delighted to report that she very convincingly affects the Irish accent written into the speech rhythms of Winnie's near-monologue and its often comically cock-eyed logic ("What is that unforgettable line?"). Some interpreters of the role keep us guessing longer about the level of the heroine's self-deception. As she struggles to fend off her growing fear of extinction, is it foolishness or genuine courage that keeps Winnie babbling on about her blessings and seeming to relish those daily toilet routines and rituals whereby she strives to maintain her genteel standards? That tactic brings out the play's strong affinities with A Woman of No Importance, Alan Bennett's great TV monologue for Patricia Routledge - another piece in which the silly self-flattery of the heroine comes to seem, by the end, a brave strategy for remaining stoic before the world's indifference and death's inevitability.

But, in her very moving performance, Kendal allows you to hear, almost from the start, the gasping panic under Winnie's bright protestations, and to see the emotional cost of continually having to heave herself back into a mode of ladylike graciousness. Pale, drawn, delicate but doughty, she alerts you to how the character's clichéd clutchings at optimism tend to be curiously qualified. "This will have been another happy day! [Pause.] After all. [Pause.] So far." The steady way that, with each phrase, confidence leaks out of that already peculiar declaration is both hilarious and heartbreaking. If she worries about the death of her neglectful, mobile but largely speechless husband, Willie, this haunting Winnie audibly dreads the day that the words and the increasingly tattered snatches of poetry and song that keep her going will run out.

Nearly 50 years since he directed his first Beckett, Hall proves once again that there is no finer conductor of this playwright's punctiliously precise verbal music and that no dramatist is as paradoxically life-affirming.

To 14 February (020-7836 3334)