Last Easter, Birmingham Rep, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture

On a virtually non-existent set – benches, stepladder and a few votive candles – and with the minimum of props – baguette, puppet tree frog, and a syringe of morphine – June and her three chums undertake a last journey.

Bryony Lavery's astute play Last Easter is brought to Britain in a fluid production by Douglas Hodge. Like the writing, the production unfolds on various levels as June loses her battle against terminal cancer. What could be mawkish develops as a blend of moods: a questioning of the ethics of ending a life when all possibilities of a cure have been exhausted, and an irreverent portrayal of the lives and loves of the four characters involved in this final act.

June, given a gracious portrayal by Janet Dibley, has a lighting designer's eye for Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ, encouraging some intensely lit sequences from Ben Ormerod. Hodge uses the space creatively to suggest her artist's eye and her somewhat distant perspective on life. Her dignified attitude towards her condition is lightened by an often over-the-top, caricaturish parade of three theatrical friends whose reliance on alternately flippant and savage artifice to veil uncomfortable truths is hard-hitting and humorous.

Lavery's exploration of difficult issues and emotional contradictions in a dazzling flow of words and wise-cracking is passionately conveyed. Peter Polycarpou's Gash, a promiscuous, joke-quoting and extremely camp drag artist, may not be everyone's idea of a soul mate with whom to confront mortality, yet he finds hidden depths. Likewise, Christine Kavanaugh's Joy, struggling to suppress her own demons of drink, smoking and visitations from a dead boyfriend, turns out to have more moral fibre than her brash "luvviness" suggests. Caroline Faber's Jewish prop-maker, Leah, is the most sympathetic character, discovering sensual celebration and comfort in an unexpected liaison with Joy.

The camaraderie of a trip to Lourdes (which is no excuse for some poor French) descends from a wry look at miracle cures to a drunken letting-off of steam under the stars. A year and a few songs later (the dunking in holy waters having been to no avail), June calls on the same buddies to prove their friendship once more. Pain is tempered by compassion and the dying light of June's life in Leah's autumnal setting has less the sense of unbearable poignancy than that of a gentle return to nature. Still, it's hard not to share the survivors' sense of bereavement.



To 10 November (0121-236 4455)

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