In Flame, Jermyn Street Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Charlotte Jones's script - which won her the Critics' Circle award for most promising playwright in 2000 - fairly crackles with fire imagery. Unfortunately, not all the aspects in Andrew Hall's production catch light.

Jones's play, like her smash NT and West End hit Humble Boy, has the deceptive outward appearance of popular telly. The contemporary plotline sees Alex (Sophie Franklin) struggle with her mother's irreversible drift into Alzheimer's disease, and her own relationship with a married man, while her brittle flatmate's pash for her mother's care assistant, James (Robert Bennison), backfires when he declares his love for Alex.

The second strand - set in Edwardian Yorkshire - has shades of a Sunday-night period piece. Her great-great-aunt Livvy and her great-grandmother, the disturbed Clara, fall under the erotic spell of a faux-Italian photographer, the self-styled Great Fabrizio (a seductive Alan Turkington), at a travelling fair.

By mirroring the trials of the women from both periods, Jones deftly keeps her work from falling into the soap suds. The light touch with which she ingeniously questions whether the intervening century has created any real freedoms for women, or if we are all doomed to repeat preordained patterns, gives her play the feeling of being both eternal and original. Yasuko Hasegawa's simple set echoes the writer's preoccupations beautifully.

Robert Bennison never fully illuminates the bitterness that threatens to engulf the thwarted James, and sadly diminishes the stolid Edwardian suitor Arthur by rendering him as a northern rude mechanical. Sophie Franklin's Alex, sudden and quick in quarrel, seems to come alive only in confrontation, giving little sense of the character's undoubted depths and magnetism in repose.

There are two winning performances. The most histrionic of the characters, Clootie, whose engagement has fallen apart when her fiancé is arrested for cottaging, is invested with a fine degree of realism by Claire Wyatt. Her turn as Clara, the simple girl from 1908 who, when seduced by The Great Fabrizio, believes she has had an epiphany, avoids the pitfalls of that dread cliché, the cutesy simpleton. Emma Rydal as her sister invests Livvy with a delicious, reigned in exuberance.

Hall keeps thestage traffic moving briskly, but the threatened inferno is somehow held in abeyance. A great farcical confrontation scene, in which all the contemporary relationships are expertly written to fall apart at once, is played out in an uncomfortable straight line.

This company has done well to bring this haunting play back to an intimate stage space - it had seemed lost under the proscenium in the original West End transfer from the Bush theatre. Even if the production fails to fully harness the play's deeper themes, a great piece of stage poetry shines through.

Booking to 7 February (020-7287 2875)

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