The Lightning Play, Almeida, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Flashes of wit and raw emotion
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The Independent Culture

Where Charlotte Jones is concerned, I always seem to take the minority view. I thought she did a deft job of streamlining the Wilkie Collins novel when she wrote the book for Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version of The Woman in White. Others did not agree. I also liked the staging conceit (the walls between rooms and different houses rendered invisible for darkly absurdist reasons) of The Dark, the piece she wrote for the Donmar Warehouse. Again, this did not have mass appeal.

Conversely, her biggest critical and commercial play to date - the award-winning Humble Boy, which starred Simon Russell Beale as a klutzy astrophysicist and contemporary version of Hamlet - struck me as no greater than the sum of its glaring influences - principally Ayckbourn and Stoppard, and, though the whole production was irradiated by Russell Beale's intelligence, the Hamlet parallels came over to me as clever rather than deeply felt. And there has seemed to be something faintly old-fashioned about her work. Not everyone can be Sarah Kane nor want to be, but, watching a Jones play, you might believe that the 1990s movements in new writing had never happened.

Her new piece, The Lightning Play - slickly mounted in a cannily performed production by Anna Mackmin - will, I suspect, not invite a divided response. There will be unanimity, I'd have thought, that the play - set on Hallowe'en and flashing back from an ill-considered drinks party involving old friends and near-strangers to the events that led up to it - is funny, line-by-line, and then heads into an inverse rehash of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

The two main points of note in the fashionably whitely furnished drawing room are a huge plasma screen (a new purchase by the wearisomely witty middle-aged Max, a self-hating/self-satisfied ghost writer of celebrity biographies) and a large antique kilim-style prayer-mat (a new purchase by his unhappy wife Harriet, who seems to feel that there is an inherent spiritual dimension to shopping.

There are two corresponding problems. Max (deftly played by Matthew Marsh) cannot turn the complex set on. Instead, every so often it switches itself on and plays him ghostly footage of his daughter as a little girl. Meanwhile, his wife (whose brittle fractiousness is well conveyed by Eleanor David) cannot decide whether to keep the rug, perhaps in part because (as a flashback indicates) she screwed the dishy owner of the shop on it earlier that day. At home, she plays second fiddle to Max's amiable and disreputable slob of a friend Eddie (lovely Lloyd Hutchinson), who is in almost permanent residence.

There are some good one-liners. Jones's comedy is more often verbal than situational. Except for one or two fine moments, she doesn't have Ayckbourn's knack of raising a laugh through pure characterisation with a perfectly dropped speech that is not in itself funny. Watching this Hallowe'en evening (which includes a trick-or-treater dressed as Harold Shipman and something none-too-pleasant happening to the prize carpet), we wait for the bombshell revelation that will explain the terrible state of the central marriage. When it comes, it involves the offstage character of the daughter who has become a roving political activist who tries to relieve misery everywhere from Ramallah to Darfur.

It also involves a blatant retread of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. But whereas Edward Albee plays the long game in that masterpiece and makes the phantom son the weapon that George and Martha use against one another throughout the piece, Jones is a shorter-term strategist.

The very real son only emerges as the tragedy behind the domestic blight in the final section of the piece, and since neither parent was to blame for what happened to him, I don't reckon that the mood becomes as painful as Jones appears to think.

To 6 January (020-7359 4404; www.almeida.co.uk)

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