The Little Foxes, Donmar Theatre, London

A well-done Southern melodrama
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When a role has been tackled before by the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor, it naturally tends to be offered these days to Rupert Everett. (Who could forget his transvestite turn in The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More?) But Marianne Elliott's sensitive revival of The Little Foxes mercifully takes us in the opposite direction in its casting of Lillian Hellman's heroine. As the manipulative, avaricious Regina, the excellent Penelope Wilton presents us with far more than a prototype for Alexis Carrington.

Set in the turn-of-the-century Deep South, this 1939 play combines melodrama with a cut-price Chekhovian view of a society in transition. It's as though we had caught up with Lopakhin from The Cherry Orchard 20 years after he had bought the estate. The wily adaptable Hubbard family have married into and supplanted the Southern aristocracy. Now they want to capitalise on their assets by building a textile factory on their land, thus profitably bringing "the machine to the cotton, and not the cotton to the machine". What follows is a grisly demonstration of the extent to which money has become a substitute for everything with these people.

Hellman is quoted in the programme tackling the charge that she wrote melodrama by putting a positive spin on the word. Tragedy is about inevitability and being at the mercy of the gods, she argued. "But if you believe that man can solve his own problems and is at nobody's mercy, then you will probably write melodrama." It makes the genre sound frightfully progressive. There is, of course, the older definition that melodrama offers a crude division between good and evil, whereas tragedy is a conflict between right and right. Even excellent actors like David Calder and Matthew Marsh can do little, as the scheming siblings, but stand around looking shifty and overfed.

A better play would allow them to hint at what it is they are compensating for in their commercial rapacity. And while Brid Brennan is wonderfully moving as the nervous bird-like aristocrat one of the brothers bagged, there's a crude lack of ambiguity in their marital relationship. Lopakhin's feelings towards the old order were torn. Here, it seems, getting wed to a toff affects nothing but the bank balance.

All the more credit then to Miss Wilton for the emotional hinterland she suggests in Regina. Winning and witty early on, she lets you see, too, the disappointment and frustration that drives this woman, who was left nothing in her father's will and had to marry wealth. She and Peter Guinness (as her dying husband) conjure up an almost palpable atmosphere of alienated misery in their awkward scenes together. Here the sequence where Regina fails to help when her spouse fatally drops his medicine bottle is redeemed from hokiness by the intensity of the cloudy bleak distraction in which Wilton seems wrapped. You can't see the point at which inattention turns into criminal calculation.

My sense of musical history may be playing me false here, but it sounds like jumping the gun a bit to have the blues playing between scenes and to make ragtime the choice of entertain- ment for a visiting Chicago industrialist. This is the only jarring detail, though, in a production that dresses mutton very convincingly as lamb.

To 24 November (020-7369 1732)