The Anniversary, Playhouse, Liverpool

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The Independent Culture

Forty years on and the kids have gathered to celebrate Mum's ruby wedding anniversary.

Forty years on and the kids have gathered to celebrate Mum's ruby wedding anniversary. Dad has been dead for years - enjoying "a bit of peace at last" - but this is an insignificant detail which isn't going to get in the way of her ritualistic celebrations. There's no doubt that it's Mum's day but, as she happily envisages party pieces, bonfire and fireworks, even she doesn't imagine just how explosive things will become. It's not only the champagne cork that's going to pop.

Sheila Hancock, who played the daughter-in-law in the stage premiere of Bill MacIlwraith's The Anniversary in 1966, repeating the role opposite Bette Davis in the screen version eight years later, is now, at the age of 71, just right for the role of malevolent, malicious Mum, one-eyed Mrs Taggart.

Using every weapon in her well-stocked armoury of control tactics, she never slackens her command over her three mummy's boys, rendering them helpless in the face of her tirade of cutting comments. Denis Lawson's tight production and MacIlwraith's stinging humour guarantee a lot of laughs and Hancock - more than mildly gruesome in her little-girl party dress - plays Mum with great verve, relishing every barbed line, and playing every bizarre trick she can to make sure she remains the centre of attention.

The family trade is building but the dodgy houses that the sons are erecting, under their mother's unscrupulous management, are nothing like as shaky as the foundations on which her family ties are built. Henry, the podgy eldest son, lives out his dreams in a flurry of cross-dressing, creating his own excitement by pilfering lacey undies from washing lines, while remaining tied firmly to Mum's apron strings.

How mild Terry ever managed to break away and wed Karen is a mystery. There's no love lost between Mum and daughter-in- law: "Natural manners tell me when to put the plug in," she declares to Karen. But they have news. They're emigrating to Canada, severing the umbilical cord that's strangling their marriage.

Tom, the youngest, beaming anxiously beneath his Beatles-style haircut, has brought home the girl he wants to marry - if, that is, she can survive that all-important first encounter with Mum. And, hurrah, though she looks like a blond bimbo, Tom's girlfriend, played by Madeleine Worrall, finally displays more guts than the rest of the family put together.

Tom and his sister-in-law may indulge in fantasies of murdering Mum, but she's not giving up her matriarchal supremacy easily. With behaviour that contains a worrying display of sexual overtones towards her boys, she's a mistress of emotional blackmail, playing one off against the other with ease. Rosie Cavaliero's astutely portrayed Karen has seen it all before but squares her shoulders, and we settle back to watch a final bruising bout of in-family verbal wrestling.

To 2 October (0151-709 4776)

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