The Seafarer, Cottesloe National Theatre, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Conor McPherson writes better than anyone about a certain type of Irish male. With keen but compassionate insight and humane humour, he fixes on shambolic, feckless men who try to assuage their desperation and loneliness through bibulous camaraderie - the "craic" concealing for a time the crack into the abyss through which they could all too easily fall. In The Weir, his most successful play to date, this self-protective world of boozy storytelling and guilt-stricken hiding-from-the-wife was pierced by a young woman who finessed them all with a story that put theirs to shame.

There's a similar formula in The Seafarer, which is in a beautiful production at the National that McPherson directs with a privileged authorial feel for both the warmth of its depiction of disreputability and for the chill that blows through it like the draught from an open ice-box in a morgue.

The piece is set at Christmas in a suburban Dublin house that resembles a cruddy adjunct to a pub. The residents here are the recently blinded Richard (Jim Norton), an emotional tyrant, and Sharky (Karl Johnson), an unstable loser who has become his brother's keeper.

The latter is struggling to stay on the wagon over Christmas. But his chances are slim. For a start, Sharky is determined to be festive by inviting round drinking partners who are giving the missus the slip or who are barred from the marital home because of pub-related absenteeism. McPherson writes about this syndrome in all its scapegrace hilarity and sadness. A cross between Benny Hill and someone veering towards Beckett territory, Conleth Hill is wonderfully funny and poignant as Ivan, a man who blearily emerges from binges unable to remember where he's parked his car or his spectacles.

One friend brings a stranger he's picked up in a bar: camel-coated, besuited, prosperous-seeming, and, it emerges, with a diabolic agenda all of his own.

I don't want to give the game away, though it involves a momentous game of cards where the stakes are the very soul of one of the participants. Ron Cook is extraordinarily good as this figure, brimming with the sinister laughter of pitiless schadenfreude and aching with the anguish of the damned, all within the dimensions of a suburban bore. On a subject where a lot of people write with insider ignorance, McPherson writes, I suspect, with the depth and freedom of true insider knowledge.

To 11 January 2007 (020-7452 3000)

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