Living Quarters, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture

It's enterprising to mount a UK premiere by Brian Friel, even if the play is 30 years old. Does Living Quarters merit it? On the evidence of the Royal Lyceum company's newest associate artist John Dove's crisp production, it seems so.

This unravelling of a family's secret past exerts a horrible fascination. Once it is clear, relatively early, what the disturbing revelation is, Friel maintains the tension.

On the outskirts of Ballybeg, in Donegal, a family gathers "some years ago" to celebrate the homecoming of their father. Commandant Frank Butler (well captured by Ron Donachie) is an Irish army officer whose heroism on a UN mission in the Middle East has brought him five minutes of fame and almost certain promotion to Dublin. His bravery has attracted the world's media and its media-savvy politicians to the town.

The characters are both introduced and manipulated by a narrator called Sir (Stuart McGugan), who describes what is to be re-enacted as the characters slip between present and past. The device lessens emotional intensity, however.

Three sisters present very different aspects of a long-gone girlhood. Tina, the youngest daughter, retains the assured sparkle of the prized last-born. Sturdy Miriam has become the clucking matron. The eldest, Helen (Irene Allan), escaped for London.

As for Ben, the boy whose life disintegrated when his mother died and his father's interest was focused on his career, in Ifan Meredith's touching performance, he has a kind of holy innocence.

And then there's Anna, a Melisande-type figure, Commandant Frank's second wife, a beautiful and mysterious waif. What brought them together is difficult to say, although the army separated them for five months just 10 days into their marriage.

In Frank's absence, she has found solace in his son Ben. This reworking of classical mythology is just one element of Greek tragedy that Friel explores so thoughtfully. Everyone except the Butler family knows of the affair, and for Frank, self-important, obsessed with the notion of his wife, the pride of his day of glory comes before a very big fall.

To 17 November (0131-248 4848)

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