Mere Mortals, Old Red Lion, London

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The Independent Culture

The Old Red Lion theatre is showing five one-act plays by the award-winning New Yorker writer David Ives. A big name in the States but less well known here, Ives displays flashes of serious talent in these five shorts. There is no ostensible narrative link between the pieces but they share a surreal feel, and the dialogue is defined by punning and game-playing. In between the pieces, languorous instrumentals add to the whimsical mood of the production.

They may be only one-act plays, but Ives doesn't let the brevity of the scenes restrict his range: we whip through death, the absence of God and the possibilities of multiple and fractured selves at a pace.

The middle section of the show contains the strongest material, beginning with the "Enigma Variations", in which a woman visits her doctor to discuss the feeling she has of being accompanied in her everyday life. On stage alongside her, her doppelgänger is undertaking the same interview in silence, the actors mimicking each other's movements.

The scene is executed with precision and synchronicity: the patients lean forward in perfect unison, and the doctors remove a speck of fluff from their jumper with the same dismissive flick. The farcical dialogue that zips between the patient and her doctor, the appropriately named Bill Williams, abounds with puns, palindromes and punchlines. "Will you send me the bill, Will?" the patient asks.

"I will," the doctor replies.

It could have come across as terribly self-satisfied, but it's infused with such vim and linguistic playfulness by the doubles that one is left smiling at the inventiveness of the dialogue and its implications. The scene is also a pithy exemplar of many of the lineaments of postmodern art: in no particular order, we are treated to doubling, repetition and rupture as the dialogue of the scene's narrative begins and then is replayed in reverse. It is, as Jimmy Nail once remarked, like déjà vu all over again.

"Bolero", next, constitutes a change of pace, moving from the surreal to the mundane. It depicts a young couple in bed at night, with the girl struggling to sleep. She is sure she can hear noises of distress, through the wall, from the flat next door and pesters her boyfriend about them. He is dismissive of her concerns, pats the bed and tells her again and again to "come in tight", a characteristically ambiguous phrase that promises both comfort and constraint. It's a scene that captures the anxiety that pervades modern living. The American accents and the whoop of sirens below suggest a New York setting and an expression of the neurosis that hangs over the city. "I'm so afraid all the time," the girlfriend tells her boyfriend. "Why?"

Mere Mortals is refreshing theatre, intelligent without being pretentious, and easily skips register from the silly to the sombre. The performers are strong, particularly the sassy Kirsty Bushell, whose delivery and accents are spot-on.

To Saturday (020-7837 7816)