The Dark, Donmar Warehouse, London

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The Independent Culture

There can be few more piquantly paradoxical ways of lighting up a stage than by dramatising the consequences of a power-cut.

There can be few more piquantly paradoxical ways of lighting up a stage than by dramatising the consequences of a power-cut. The result was uproarious farce in Peter Shaffer's classic Black Comedy. The idea is deployed more hauntingly, if also comically, in Charlotte Jones's new play, The Dark, which is premiered now in a finely orchestrated, spooky-funny production by Anna Mackmin.

On the stage of the Donmar Warehouse, three adjacent homes are exposed - and partly superimposed - for our voyeuristic inspection by Lez Brotherston's arresting open-plan set. The piece taps into those fantasies we've all entertained about the bizarre juxtapositions that would be brought to light if the walls between our separate living compartments were to dissolve - someone sitting doing a crossword on the loo, just a couple of feet away from a young mother curled up in the depths of postnatal depression, who is, in turn, just a few yards from a 14-year-old boy lost to the world around him in a computer chat room. Then the lights go out, and what's needed is the Blitz spirit - except that this isn't the 1940s; it's the socially atomised yet sometimes wildly unprivate, uncaring yet sometimes crudely intrusive present day that the dramatist is depicting.

This is Jones's first stage play since her accomplished but essentially ersatz West End hit Humble Boy, no more than the sum of the parts that it had borrowed from Ayckbourn, Stoppard and Shakespeare. You're reminded of Ayckbourn again here, along with Joe Orton and Alan Bennett in the relationship between the tormented, gay live-in son (the excellent Stuart McQuarrie) and his dogmatic, querulous old mother (Sian Phillips), who fancies that same-sex sex is "all furtive looks in the greenery''. And such is the over-calculated concentration of case-study emotional and social problems in these three households that you feel, at moments, as if you are watching Black Comedy crossed with a recruitment drive for the Samaritans.

But the play does capture with a sharp, compassionate wit the contradiction of our times, when Big Brother and chat rooms are our idea of intimacy. Enhanced by a lovely performance from Anastasia Hille, the strand about being so afraid of a second cot death that you can hardly risk loving your newborn baby springs, I'd guess, from something close to first-hand experience. And one of the best things Jones has yet written is the piercingly suggestive scene between the gay man, who has been mistaken for a paedophile and beaten up, and the confused teenage computer freak who has come to taunt him with self-despising sexual temptation.

To be blunt, I had mentally filed Jones under "square'', and she is not a dramatist whom you'd be in any danger of confusing with Sarah Kane and the Royal Court School. But there is something stirring in her latest play that gives one hope that she will turn out better than her admirers have foreseen - and better in a different way.

To 24 April (0870 060 6624)

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