The Astonished Heart/Still Life, Playhouse, Liverpool

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The Independent Culture

Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence appeared together as child actors at Liverpool Playhouse in 1912 and he later wrote nine one-act plays as vehicles for their combined acting talents. These scaled-down works were presented three at a time in the mid-1930s under the collective title "Tonight at 8.30". In them, Coward set out prove that a short play deserved to be cherished for its ability to "sustain a mood without technical creaking or overpadding." He added the proviso "with careful writing, acting and producing".

The rights to these plays having only recently become available again and the enterprising Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse team has snapped up two. Under Philip Wilson's direction and with a colourful ensemble company, this double bill at the Playhouse Theatre works a treat. The Astonished Heart, set in cool art deco chic, is one of Coward's intense triangles: wife, husband, lover. Of the trio, one appears pretty much devoid of emotion, apparently in complete control of a situation that has got decidedly out of hand; one is teetering on the edge of a devouring obsession and breakdown, and one is a drifter, hiding disappointment with life behind the bright brittle façade of a destructive sexual predator.

Coward's cunning use of flashback gives an intriguing edge to the plot, though not with- out dropping heavy hints, "Come away from that window, won't you?" - ah, so the window's the one to watch. In one hour, a year flashes past, passions are unleashed and spent, numerous cocktails shaken and sipped, and lives changed for ever.

Nancy Carroll portrays the seductress with great style, born to the role of temptress. Jo Stone-Fewings, playing the psychiatrist who becomes more in need of help than capable of giving it as he flaps helplessly around inside her trap, and Tessa Churchard is the wife charting their moves with an almost clinical detachment.

Still Life is particularly fascinating because of its origins as the idea for Brief Encounter. Here, that whirl of love, guilt and heartbreak takes place entirely at Milford Junction Station, within Myrtle Bagot's refreshment room, beautifully designed by Peter McKintosh.

Stone-Fewings and Carroll step courageously and credibly into the shoes of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, their pent-up emotions firmly buttoned down with stiff-upper-lip restraint. The hustle and bustle of station life - more prominent in this confined setting - slices up their intimate exchanges and, along with the puffing and screeching of passing trains, helps to give the impression of time passing. Churchard's Mrs Bagot and John Elkington's Albert are terrific as the other love interest, while Heather Craney as the breezy Dolly Messiter, bursting in on the lovers' last brief encounter, makes you squirm with discomfort.

To 10 April (0151-709 4776)

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