There's no coming home for these five characters in search of hope, and whose abrupt exchanges, edgy silences and darting non sequiturs contribute to a troubling picture of desperate isolation. In Oxford Stage Company's revival of David Storey's Home, Christopher Godwin plays Jack the dapper chap, the role created by John Gielgud, while David Calder steps into the tweedy part of Harry, originally taken by Ralph Richardson. It's to Storey's credit that the parts of the two old codgers are indelible enough to outlive their knightly creators, at least when given such plausible portraits as those presented in Sean Holmes's sure-footed production.
Anthony Lamble's sparse set gives little away - two white, wrought-iron chairs around a table, a stone balustrade, and a lawn that has seen better days, like the two elderly gents who stroll up. They begin a desultory conversation. "It's not too hot, no, not too cold", and it begins to dawn: they're not too mad, not too sane. They despair - through the agonies and frustration of severed communication, half-begun sentences, half-remembered memories - over the state of Britain and life now, often with deadpan humour. "I sometimes think if the war had been prolonged another 30 years we'd have all felt the benefit," says Jack in a moment of apparent profundity. They're glad they live on an island but just how stranded they actually are only becomes apparent as, jokes and card tricks forgotten, their stiff upper lips begin to wobble and tears flow.
The two women, not introduced until the second act, add a quite different dimension, while revealing that all four are patients in a vast, impersonal mental institution, the home where no one's heart is. Marjorie (Sandra Voe) hides her insecurities with her world-weary attitude to everything: "rape, intercourse, physical pleasure", nothing shocks her. If Geraldine James seems less well-cast as cackling Kathleen, contorting her face and sometimes trying too hard to be mad instead of just being herself, she takes the agony of ill-fitting shoes onto a new level. So convincingly does she convey bleeding feet, cramped toes and bruised ankles, that I limped out of the theatre in sympathy. She's the girl who's game for anything, desperate for her lonely life to be filled, especially with a bit of nookie - with anyone. The humour is black, the sadness of their lives ineffable.
Soon the two couples are trying to make contact, like four ghostly dancers gliding around each other, sometimes touching a nerve, often retreating into the neutral subject of the weather. As the fragmentary pieces are juggled into some sort of recognisable position - including Jack's "certain proclivity" for little girls and Harry's pyromaniacal tendencies - the reasons for the characters' incarceration become less hazy, though they are never entirely clear in Storey's typically enigmatic snapshot.
Touring to Bury St Edmunds (01284 769505) 9 to 13 November; Cambridge Arts Theatre (01223 503333) 16 to 20 November; Liverpool Playhouse (0151-709 4776) 23 to 27 November