The Small Things, Menier Chocolate Factory, London

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The Independent Culture

In Enda Walsh's new play, The Small Things, produced by Paines Plough as part of its This Other England season, a man (Bernard Gallagher) and a woman (Valerie Lilley), in two houses atop mountains separated by a deep valley, are talking. They talk to forget. They talk to keep from forgetting. As long as they talk, they will stave off death.

In Enda Walsh's new play, The Small Things, produced by Paines Plough as part of its This Other England season, a man (Bernard Gallagher) and a woman (Valerie Lilley), in two houses atop mountains separated by a deep valley, are talking. They talk to forget. They talk to keep from forgetting. As long as they talk, they will stave off death.

Fragments of trauma - a sequence of harrowing events that appears, by turns, surreal and allegorical, and, in flashes, brutally real - are revealed little by little in a tidal narrative. The events link the characters inexorably, while simultaneously keeping them apart. Like verbal chess players, each character speaks in turns, spurred (or thwarted) by a clock - Gallagher bluff and tangential; Lilley distracted with pools of warmth in her confusion.

The listener - for this is a play of and about words - is compelled to roll with the punches of the events described. At times it is pure Book at Bedtime: soothing and delightful as great lines pop like unexpected fireworks. At others it is jagged and chilling.

The director, Vicky Featherstone, and her two actors create a keen illusion of movement in a play in which the characters remain largely static. Natasha Chivers' subtle lighting design handles each major shift of mood with admirable delicacy.

This Other England explores and celebrates the linguistic diversity of these islands and the 30th anniversary of the new- writing crucible Paines Plough. Linking up with such noted British theatre companies as the Dundee Rep and the Tron, eight plays have been commissioned from leading British and Irish writers. The season has been inspired by Melvyn Bragg's Radio 4 series The Routes of English. Walsh's verbally expansive yet emotionally repressed piece seems an impressive harbinger.

The versatile Menier Chocolate Factory is the London home of the season and is configured here in an almost traditional stage-to-audience relationship. Everything in Neil Warmington's design is suspended above the stage, as if floating over the runway-style strip of parquet flooring that traverses the stage - the table, the ornaments on the table, even the chairs in which they sit.

Perhaps they were not suspended so much as buoyed up by strong undercurrents of Samuel Beckett. Two chairs spaced at a so-near-yet-so-far Endgame distance and a tape recorder, inevitably echoing Krapp's Last Tape, form the more obvious end of the allusion. Meanwhile, a palpable relish of words shining amid the cascade of thought roots this short piece (just over an hour) firmly in the Beckett tradition.

Whether your disbelief will be suspended depends entirely on whether you view fiercely elliptical plays with central characters named simply Man and Woman as the theatrical equivalent of The Emperor's New Clothes, or welcome such with relish. Either way, a provoking night - and, one would wish, season - awaits you.

To 27 February (020-7907 7060)

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