The Pull of Negative Gravity, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Vivid depiction of a soldier's desperate sort of homecoming
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The Independent Culture

More soldiers commit suicide during and after a conflict than are killed by enemy actions. This is the bald statistic opening Jonathan Lichtenstein's programme note for his gripping new play, The Pull of Negative Gravity.

There are hazards in any drama dealing with the aftermath of war, in this case the Iraq conflict as experienced by a farming family in Wales. But Lichtenstein's sensitive handling of his serious subject matter and the fine acting of the Mercury Theatre Company ensemble, under the direction of Gregory Thompson, give this play a strong shape and an emotional honesty.

Dai, the farmer's son turned soldier in Iraq, has been spat back home by the system, physically and mentally ravaged by what he has done and what has been done to him. He is impressively played by Daniel Hawksford, who is deeply moving in his frustrated attempts to communicate anything - his feelings, his rage, his hopeless helplessness. His existence is a living death and the nightmare every soldier's family must dread comes right into the home and hearts of his shocked family and girlfriend. It's a mark of Lichtenstein's eloquence that we are caught up in the action, sharing their devastation and desperation, as they confront the awfulness of the effects of brutal modern warfare.

His mother, Vi, has every right to feel resentment at the blows life has dealt her, but there's no room for sentimentality or self-pity when you're grinding a living. She's given a beautifully nuanced and insightful portrayal by Joanne Howarth, shouldering her burdens with apparent ease until, that is, the final blow breaks her heart. It turns to stone.

Dai's younger brother, Rhys, the boy who would have joined up if Dai hadn't taken his place, is isolated in his own web of grief and guilt. The object of both brothers' affection - Bethan, a nurse who has to cope with war casualties in her professional and her private life - pursues the earth-moving tremors of low-flying Chinook helicopters with a passion that touches on the orgasmic. In the scenes between Rhys and Bethan (Lee Haven-Jones and Louise Collins), we glimpse what might be or might have been.

There is lyricism, there is love, there is even humour. For all his compassion, Lichtenstein tackles too many issues - lust, duty, brotherly rivalry, foot-and-mouth, suicide, murder. Added to this are dream sequences, timeshifts, flashbacks and rather a lot of parallel strands of story yielding more unanswered questions than satisfying answers. Though this multi-layered saga is frustratingly compressed into just 90 minutes, the production makes a powerful impression. If all a playwright can do today is warn, this one has done a good job.

Until 28 August at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 0131 228 1404; then at Mercury Studio Theatre, Colchester, 1-11 September 01206 573948

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