The Fight for Barbara, Theatre Royal, Bath<br></br>The Provoked Wife, Southwark Playhouse, London<br></br>Protection, Soho, London

A lovers' nest. No place for a husband...
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The Independent Culture

What on earth was Edward Garnett thinking? In 1912, DH Lawrence sent a package - with an ebullient covering letter - to his literary mentor who was a talent-scouting script-reader and dramatist. It was not the final draft of Sons and Lovers, which the 27-year-old had been toiling away at for months. Lawrence had, in fact, eloped to an Italian village with Frieda Weekley - his new-found passion but also another man's wife - and in the parcel was The Fight for Barbara, a brilliantly acute play closely based on their relationship.

Garnett wrote back saying he didn't rate it. His misjudgement was a crying shame, for two decades passed before the script got printed posthumously and it was the late 1960s before it was staged (abridged) in London. This play, like Lady Chatterley's Lover, may have been deemed too morally bold for Edwardian England: the equivalent of - Shock! Horror! - the Anglican Church openly accepting homosexual bishops.

In the first scene of Thea Sharrock's excellent revival of this forgotten gem, Jimmy (Jason Hughes) is making breakfast in his pyjamas, happy and scruffy in a rough-and-ready villa with a view of distant mountains. Barbara (Rebecca Hall), too, is playfully skittish in her night gown, and both are affectionate and teasing. It's a relaxed Boho life, interrupted only by the milkmaid or il postino. But Jimmy is a collier's son while Barbara is upper-crust, and her parents and husband Frederick turn up, determined to retrieve her from this "shameful" affair. She stands her ground, frankly condemning her marriage, but her anxieties start to show and her jokes about Jimmy's lowliness become cruel.

True, Shaw and Wilde had already touched on polemical marital issues and these days, divorce and disgrace are hardly synonymous, but Lawrence's kitchen-sink drama still comes across as startlingly modern.

Sometimes it foreshadows Look Back in Anger, only with the well-to-do woman being the vicious, hysterical bully. The dialogue often seems a freshly-cut slice of life, extraordinarily informal though psychologically telling. Performed here (apparently for the first time) without cuts, the talk can go round in circles - but it's the more real for that. The physical intimacy of Hughes and Hall is terrifically natural, amusing and poignant, too - whether she idly hugs him while he's trying to boil eggs or he suddenly clasps her in the middle of a quarrel. This piece is timeless in its sensitivity to the emotional mess caused by what we so neatly dub "love triangles".

Hall is an impressively deft young actress who manages to make Barbara piteously shaky as well as horridly demanding. Hughes might sharpen Jimmy's class anger a little to balance the portrait. Yet the conflicts are better for being understated. Ann Penfold's Lady Charlcote is no caricatured Lady Bracknell: she is comically and shockingly snobbish but also a genuinely flustered mother. And William Chubb's Frederick, after an awkward start, proves to be a furious and wounded English gent.

Under the stewardship of Sir Peter Hall (Rebecca's father), Bath Theatre Royal's ambitious summer season gets off to a flying start.

At Southwark Playhouse (which Sharrock runs), Vanbrugh's extramarital farce, The Provoked Wife, seems comparatively feeble. Director Paul Jepson was one of the fledglings nurtured in the NT's recent Loft season and his concepts for updating the 17th-century to modern times seems fun at first.

The uncouth Sir John Brute becomes a rat-arsed city slicker. His bored wife is a Sloane, flicking through Vogue, and the roving gallants who take a shine to her and her niece look like trendy dotcom entrepreneurs. But the time-warp isn't carefully worked through, so you end up wondering where you are exactly, as Jane Robbins' Lady Brute dons a luminous Afro wig for an incognito promenade and Jane Galloway's Lady Fanciful - an old trout in designer street gear - affects a bemusingly inconsistent Irish-Jamaican accent. Simon Merrells is explosively coarse as Sir John but the joke wears thin long before he cross-dresses, and Jepson barely probes the anger and disappointment behind the infidelities.

It's more a case of provoked surrogate parents in Protection, a new play about an inner-city Family Support team who are meant to provide round-the-clock care for delinquent kids. The 26-year-old writer, Fin Kennedy, certainly shows promise, following in David Hare's footsteps as he analyses the state of British social services.

But Protection sometimes feels a tad worthy, schematic and politically predictable in the issues it raises. The hardworking carers are suffering from inadequate government funding and one is estranged from her own child; and being too liberal and friendly in dangerous cases leads to problems etc. Basically, this feels like a pilot for a TV soap.

Nevertheless, the dialogue flows smoothly, almost all of the characters ring true, and over all the play is strongly shaped, from the hectic overlapping phone conversations of Scene One to everybody tentatively moving on at the end. Abigail Morris's production is staged in a harsh urban setting, with office chairs, concrete pillars and steel shutters. Margot Leicester is on top form as the fundamentally sound but stressed-out group leader and playing the slouching truant Adam, Joe Armstrong makes an outstanding professional stage debut: hilarious, menacing, and terribly vulnerable. A name to watch.

'The Fight for Barbara': Theatre Royal, Bath (01225 448844), to 6 Aug; 'The Provoked Wife': Southwark Playhouse, London SE1 (020 7620 3494), to 26 July; 'Protection': Soho, London W1 (020 7478 0100), to 26 July