Who needs enemies when you've got pals like D H Lawrence? Amy Rosenthal's enjoyable new biodrama On the Rocks is a serio-comic group portrait that homes in on the novelist's maladroit attempt to create a utopian literary community in Cornwall during the First World War. This is when he and his German wife Frieda – having fled not only her homeland but also her children and first husband – moved to the remote village of Zennor and invited their friends, the writer Katherine Mansfield and her editor-husband John Middleton Murry, to rent the cottage next door.
We see Ed Stoppard's indefatigable Lawrence scorning the aggression of the war and the local xenophobic persecution which his spouse is encountering. Simultaneously, his ivory tower of an idyll is being shot to hell because of his bullish egocentricity and vitriolic temper. He commandeers the other couple's kitchen every night and holds forth at supper. Spouting his credo that male friendships are somehow on a higher plane, he is predominantly interested in bonding with Nick Caldecott's nervously pliant, tweedy Murry. Tracy-Ann Oberman's garrulous Frieda is left to distract Charlotte Emmerson's Mansfield from her writing. Not one for social niceties, Lawrence thinks nothing of manhandling his wife between courses.
What's remarkable is that, thanks to Rosenthal's robust sense of humour and Stoppard's charisma, you don't end up loathing Lawrence. Clare Lizzimore's production involves a somewhat lumpen realistic set on which the drama occasionally stagnates.
But the whole cast give fine performances. Emmerson's increasingly exasperated Mansfield is quietly nuanced, struggling, as the playwright did, with writer's block. Meanwhile, the gents' wrestling scene is a delightfully farcical variation on the famous fireside tussle in Women in Love. Stoppard's skinny, pugilistic Lawrence huffs and puffs as Caldecott's pusillanimous Murry leaps into his arms like a baby.
Hampstead Theatre, NW3 (020-7722 9301) to 26 Jul