Interior / Winners, Young Vic, London

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The Independent Culture

The death by drowning of teenage characters is the one common feature in this double bill of otherwise exceptionally diverse plays designed to showcase the talents nurtured through the Young Vic's excellent Young Directors scheme. A major difference is the way in which each work breaks the terrible news to us.

The death by drowning of teenage characters is the one common feature in this double bill of otherwise exceptionally diverse plays designed to showcase the talents nurtured through the Young Vic's excellent Young Directors scheme. A major difference is the way in which each work breaks the terrible news to us.

Interior is a deeply uncheery chamber piece by Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), the Belgian poet and playwright of the Symbolist movement whose once strong influence on European drama is now largely forgotten in Britain. Here, the audience is made privy to the ill tidings from the outset. It is the drowned girl's family - viewed through the windows of their comfortable bourgeois home - whose unawareness of the tragedy is protracted by the failure of will of the tale-bearers hovering outside, paralysed by the spectacle of the charmed ignorance of the domestic scene indoors.

By contrast, in Winners, a powerful one-act play by the great contemporary Irish dramatist Brian Friel, the world seems to lie all before the young couple who, on a perfect day in June, meet on a hillside to sunbathe and swot for their O-levels. But she is pregnant and they are about to leave school to embark on married life, and to this precarious situation Friel adds a pair of solemn, suited narrators who, in stealthy instalments that throw ironic shadows over proceedings, rehearse the chronicle of a joint death foretold.

Christopher Heimann, the director of Interior, has the harder task - to say which is not to detract one jot from the lovely job that Dawn Walton does on Winners. Her production is beautifully cast, with Michael Legge and Elaine Symons finding the right balance between the salty humour of the couple's flirty charm, and the sadness of the fact that they already seem to be falling into the rhythms of mutual recrimination and bad communication of a bad marriage.

In its finely judged handling of light and shade, the production is true to the play's haunting agnosticism. It's impossible to say how things would have worked out for this pair - only that their lives have been snuffed out, apparently senselessly. An intermittently creepy atmosphere is reinforced by having the older, bulletin-delivering pair materialise in various parts of the auditorium.

I wish I could be as positive about Interior, but what must once have felt like an experimental drama comes across here as stiff and stilted. Partly, this comes from using a dated-sounding translation. Everything, to the contemporary ear, has a slightly risible portentousness ("You cannot see into the soul as you see into that room"), and the actors struggle to stop the dialogue seeming like po-faced parody. Partly, the inertness derives from the old-fashioned way the production persists in depicting the lamplit family, sealed off in their sense of false security. Heimann chooses to present them, as presumably the script dictates, as a tableau vivant of real-life actors. This looks artificial and static, and given that the scene is described in rapt detail by the Old Man (Pip Donaghy) outside, perhaps it would have been better to take a more abstract approach - showing the family as shadows given substance only by the anxious scrutiny of the eavesdroppers. Still, the piece emerges, even here, as more than a curiosity.

To 12 June (020-7928 6363)

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