Playboy of the West Indies, Tricycle Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

It's anniversary time up the Kilburn High Road with Nicolas Kent's production of Playboy of the West Indies. Mustapha Matura's play was first staged 20 years ago with Kent at the helm. And this year the theatre that saw the difficult birth of the play's source material, Ireland's national theatre, The Abbey, celebrated 100 years.

It's anniversary time up the Kilburn High Road with Nicolas Kent's production of Playboy of the West Indies. Mustapha Matura's play was first staged 20 years ago with Kent at the helm. And this year the theatre that saw the difficult birth of the play's source material, Ireland's national theatre, The Abbey, celebrated 100 years.

When JM Synge's Playboy of the Western World opened in 1907, the father of The Abbey, WB Yeats, had to beg from the stage for the audience to desist from rioting at its controversial subject matter. The play has lost little of its power.

Indeed, Matura's version, relocated from County Mayo in Ireland to Mayaro in Trinidad, gives back to the original a clarity by freeing it from any hint of reverence.

What first becomes clear, in a much more knockabout and funny production than many Irish versions this reviewer has seen, is that British colonialism created the milieu that so offended the Dublin playgoers of 1907. That the peasantry are venal, petty, self-centred hypocrites is merely learned behaviour from the British Empire. In an often laugh-out-loud production, this assertion morphs from "a nation once again" style protest song into comedy and satire.

The familiar story in which Ken - an excellent Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, oscillating between vainglorious bluster and a weak-kneed non-entity as seamlessly as Kent's production snaps from comedy to bleakness - stumbles into Mikey's rum shop claiming to have murdered his father, only to find himself fêted as a hero, takes on contemporary relevance. In the space of a day his fan-club turns into a lynch mob, suggesting an relationship with celebrity pre-dating even the a quarter of an hour in the limelight that many people today seem to take as their birthright.

Matura's transfer is a faithful and easy one. The set designer, Adrianne Lobel, turns the shebeen into a wood and corrugated-iron rum shop. And moving the tale from one culture with a rich oral tradition to another yields great dividends, especially for those with a love of English in all its forms.

Most important of all is the comparison of two matriarchal cultures, identified as such not only by the presence of noisy, ineffectual men, but by the subtle control asserted by Peggy, who runs the rum shop for her father. In the role, Sharon Duncan-Brewster is funny, surly, sexy, both vulnerable and strong and, finally, heart-rending as her fate dawns on her in the blink of an eye - the standard amount of time required to change the universe in this precision production. This much-loved, much-admired piece is not only illuminating in itself: it even sheds light on the shebeen back in the old country from where it was lifted.

Booking to 22 January (020-7328 1000)

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