Mrs Klein, Almeida Theatre, London

3.00

Lukewarm in the final analysis

You think you've got a difficult mother! Melanie Klein's daughter didn't stand a chance, from the moment she put her head out. Klein gave the girl a name that was a diminutive of her own, then psychoanalysed and wrote about Melitta for her brilliant theories in child development.

Herself a psychoanalyst – perhaps not the ideal choice of profession – Melitta is still under mama's thumb, criticised for poor practice, even threatened with losing her licence if she doesn't fall into line. Melitta can't even express a simple emotion without its being used as evidence against her: When she tells her mother, "I hate you", Klein replies that she has obviously failed to work through her ambivalence.

Nicholas Wright's 1988 play, directed by Thea Sharrock, has a fascinating woman at its centre, which is one of its problems. Klein is so much bolder and more complex than Melitta or the only other character, Paula – like them a refugee analyst in the London of 1934 – that their conflict takes on the aspect of a splendid animal baited by mice. That struggle, apart from the constant one of mother and daughter, is Melitta's determination to make Klein believe that her son, who has just died, was not an accident victim but a suicide, dead because he, too, hated her.

At the same time, Paula, Klein's temporary assistant, wants to become her patient/substitute daughter. But her ambition has no All about Eve aspects of malice and deception – the other two know what's going on, and offer little resistance. The lack of contrast between the characters also muffles excitement, and the evening is further damped down by slow pacing and understated acting (literally so – less than 10 rows back, I often had trouble hearing the dialogue). Despite a set of red walls, curtains, ceiling, lampshades, sofa, and rug, which lacks only a sign reading "womb", this is a rather bloodless affair.

While suffering from the general lack of oomph, Clare Higgins's Klein is utterly convincing as a woman of superb confidence, grandly amused at her own intellect, as if it had a separate existence as the precocious child she never had. Nicola Walker, as Paula, as the impoverished refugee, is an appealing mixture of stubborn determination and warm maternal impulse. The latter trait, ironically, solves the mystery of the son's death when Klein, who has always preached the virtue of facing harsh truths (to compensate for her inability to console?), takes the facts at face value.

Zoë Waites, however, seems a cuckoo in this nest – a brittle 1930s cocktail-party blonde full of affectation and mincing irony. If the real Melitta did assume this protective colouration, did the Central European Jew in her never pipe up when she was angry or exhausted? The performance makes us even more inclined not to take the resentful, petulant Melitta seriously, and to think that the doctor she really needs is the one who will tell her, "Stop tearing up little pieces of paper!" – not Mel Klein, but Brooks.

To 5 December (020-7359 4404)

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