The Postman Always Rings Twice, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

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The Independent Culture

From the moment the stage opens up to reveal the reversing lights of a truck, the theatre reverberating with the sound of a revving engine, and a drifter, Frank Chambers, spilling on to the gravelly road, there's a compelling edge to Lucy Bailey's production of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

From the moment the stage opens up to reveal the reversing lights of a truck, the theatre reverberating with the sound of a revving engine, and a drifter, Frank Chambers, spilling on to the gravelly road, there's a compelling edge to Lucy Bailey's production of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Those with fond memories of either of the films that James M Cain's novella spawned will find that, with Bailey's assured direction drawing fine performances all round, Andrew Rattenbury's adaptation of this shabby little shocker has their stomach tightening in expectation of grim violence and steamy sex.

The shadowy darkness against which much of the action is played makes visible the uncomfortable fact that the three central characters are on the scrapheap of life. Joseph Alessi makes a sympathetic case for Nick Papadakis, owner of the isolated roadside diner, callously dismissed by his bored wife Cora as a greasy Greek geek. Alessi plays him like a puppy, desperate to be loved and panting to love. But the former Iowa high-school beauty queen who ended up in a hash-house before escaping into this dead-end marriage is set alight not by nice Nick but by grimy Frank, whom Nick takes on as a repair guy. It quickly turns out he's intent on servicing more than auto parts, and Cora is soon ripping off her knickers. After making love like crazy, they turn to fighting like cats.

Bailey has captured the twisted tale's film-noir mood brilliantly. Ingenious cinematic cuts, cunning dissolves and chiaroscuro lighting keep the intricate and intriguing sequence of events fast-paced. Only the inclusion of a ghostly, bloodied Nick during the lovers' final encounter in the diner feels odd. Bunny Christie's enterprising set works well, except in one or two scenes when having the sparsely furnished diner remaining on stage begs the audience to turn a blind eye.

Hanging over practically the entire show is the car in which Frank sends Nick to his death. It looms menacingly until the fatal crash, and is perched ominously above Frank and Cora's lives after it. It's an effective image, since one moment Frank and Cora are flying sky high, their sexual chemistry spinning them to the top of the mountain, and the next, they're hopelessly at odds, oppressed by the mountain weighing down on them. There is at least a perception of guilt in Cora's character, since she shows some remorse, but the deeply unlikeable Frank has few, if any, redeeming features when played as punchily as he is here by Patrick O'Kane. Opposite him, Charlotte Emmerson rises uninhibitedly to the challenge of Cora's character, a complex mix of low self-esteem and awareness that there must be something better on the far-distant desert horizon.

The sound effects add brilliantly to the sustained sense of unease, from the chilling creaking of the Twin Oaks diner sign to Django Bates's twanging score, which, full of allusions, screws the tension even tighter. Shafts of light penetrate each room in the police station, where Malcolm Rennie's intimidating district attorney, Sackett, attempts to nail the murderous couple. He may, like them, be smart, but - against the cunning defence lawyer Katz, in which role the hard-working Alessi effortlessly doubles - Sackett is initially frustrated. But the postman always rings twice.

To 16 October (0113-213 7700)

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