Pillars Of The Community, Lyttelton, NT, London

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The Independent Culture

But he's not above shady self-interest. He and his partners have secretly bought up land that will make him a millionaire when the railway company drives a branch line through it. Bernick will need all his prized reputation for probity to square this with the townsfolk. Just then, Tonnesen unexpectedly returns in the company of Lona Hessel, the free-spirited woman Bernick ditched in favour of wealth and respectability. When Johan falls in love with a local girl and wants back his good name, the Bernick myth is poised to shatter.

Pillars of the Community, with its demands for a large company, is rarely performed in England. But Marianne Elliott's magnificent staging proves that it's a wonderfully rich and absorbing piece. The play operates splendidly on so many fronts. It's a biting study of the human cost of success. It paints a deadly picture of repressively inward-looking provincial life. It powerfully integrates the public and the private. And it points us in the direction of tragedy only to affront our moral sense by issuing an unearned reprieve.

Lesley Manville is superb as Lona Hessel, capturing her acerbic contempt as she twits the stuffy town with her amused liberated-woman routine and her emotional loneliness. Lona has the letters that could bring down Bernick, but she tears them up. She wants him to see that the point of life is "not so much to be happy as deserve to be".

But, in a climactic speech before the community, Damian Lewis's excellently intense and cagey Bernick demonstrates a singular lack of merit when he righteously divulges some of his crimes. This performance is an outrageous piece of moral blackmail and a blatant sales-pitch for himself as controller of the public railway company.

Deep down, nothing has been learnt, and the storm that breaks in the well-judged final sequence, spells trouble not relief.

To 4 February (020-7452 3000)

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