The Cryptogram, Donmar Warehouse, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Most people associate David Mamet with the all-male world of crooks, con men and scams-within-scams. But he is also an exceptionally acute and sensitive writer about the emotional damage inflicted on children. One of the best things he has composed is the autobiographical prose piece "The Rake", which is about the troubled household that comprised Mamet himself, his mother, sister and stepfather, and is a piercingly honest insight into how adults can betray children by creating such a pressured atmosphere.

In The Cryptogram, his 1994 play revived in an immaculate and deeply disturbing production by Josie Rourke, the focus is on 11-year-old John, who is brought to naggingly-anxious-and-needy life in a performance of extraordinary empathy by Oliver Coopersmith.

It's 1959 in Chicago and on the night before a projected rite-of-passage camping trip with his father, John cannot sleep. All children are natural philosophers in the defamiliarising, fundamental questions they ask about the conundrums of existence and the world.

But John is precocious in this department. He is also troubled by voices (echoes of marital rows, or premonitions of the impending marital split?). At the end of the first scene in this unbrokenly performed 65-minute play, he discovers a letter with a message that signifies that the male-bonding trip is off permanently.

The boy is left to the misguided mercies of his mother (Kim Cattrall) and her gay, long-time friend, Del (Douglas Henshall). The two of them deliver Mamet's fractured, groping and concealing dialogue beautifully. Cattrall begins as an impeccably groomed 1950s housewife but - under the weight of wanting to make a man of John at the same time as being given a good reason to hate men - fractures into a frighteningly vindictive aggressor; deflecting anger at her spouse on the two males left in her life.

Henshall is excellent, radiating concern for the boy and transmitting his love of the mother and craving for a surrogate family. The gradual revelation of his complicity in the husband's adultery is painful to watch.

The play's network of charged objects and duplicitous symbols (from an old photograph now viewed differently, to the husband's German pocket knife) is enhanced in this eloquently designed production, with its steep unearthly staircase which John ascends at the end, holding the knife with which he may cut himself or cut himself free.

To 25 November (08700 606 624)

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