The Good Hope, Cottesloe Theatre, London

That sinking feeling
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The Independent Culture

It is early Socialist and from a Dutch original shamefully neglected in this country. It is wincingly topical again, recalling the recent derelictions of Railtrack in its portrait of an oppressed fishing community at the mercy of a corrupt bureau-cracy willing to risk men's lives in unseaworthy vessels. And it has been adapted by Lee Hall who flooded the nation's tear ducts with Spoonface Steinberg and Billy Elliot. I can't remem-ber when I last felt so morally obliged to admire a piece of theatre. Yet there were long stretches of The Good Hope, Herman Heijermans's play from 1900, which I found a chore to sit through, at least with a straight face. And I suspect that this is not the fault of the original but of Bill Bryden's staging and the new Hall version.

Auden wrote that "Art makes nothing happen", but this drama – relocated here to Whitby on the north Yorkshire coast – actually brought about a reform of the Dutch shipping laws. Hall argues in the programme that Ibsen would have begun the play amongst the middle classes. He would also, you could add, have created more tragic ambiguity over the shipowner, making him do the wrong thing for what could be seen as the right reason.

Heijermans, by contrast, anchors the piece amongst the working folk, focusing on the family of Kitty Fitzgerald (Frances de la Tour), a woman who has already lost a husband and two sons to the sea. Now she stands to be bereaved of the survivors: James (Steve Nicholson) the would-be revolutionary who has been further radicalised by a prison stint and sensitive Ben (Iain Robertson) who has a screaming phobia about the sea. There's an odd pre-echo of Billy Elliot in this single parent family set-up. A pity there was no Royal Ballet School for Ben to try for.

The drama is strengthened by the fact that Heijermans's shipowner (Tom Georgeson) is no conscienceless villain, but a troubled man who has risen from nothing, struggling to keep men in work on an inherited rotten fleet and by that fatalistic acceptance of mortality amongst the villagers that provides a moving context for the "accidents".

With his production of The Mysteries at the National and of Glaswegian epics such as The Ship and The Big Picnic, Bill Bryden has proved himself a master director of the sweeping community play. Here, though, the action is wedged into Hayden Griffin's risibly dinky cobbled set which has the effect of making everything, including the clog dancing, the mournful pipes and John Tams's elegiac ballads, feel like part of some awful Heritage Experience. The universal is said to spring from the specific, but not when there's overkill.

As Kitty, Frances de la Tour produces the kind of emotionally raw, "great" acting I can't believe in for a second. It's a feature of this actress's charm that, even when she played the wily serpent of old Nile, you reckoned she'd never been north of Oxford. This is less of an asset in someone trying to be the Mother Courage of Whitby. One or two of Hall's lines have the authentic stamp of Ernie Wise, as in the rhyming poetry of "Kitty. It's nowt to do with me. You know that committee", while the scene of gusty arrivals and exits during a howling gale seems to have strayed here from The Play What I Wrote. Not a great catch.

To 9 Jan (020-7452 3000)

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