The Woman Before, Royal Court, London

A dizzy, witty time travel
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The Independent Culture

Here's a rum coincidence. In the past week, the Royal Court has opened two plays that jump about in time in a dizzying, resolutely non-linear fashion. That, though, is pretty much where the similarity ends. Performed in the Theatre Upstairs, David Eldridge's Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness makes fluid and lightning temporal shifts in an effort to get inside the psychology of a thirtysomething man who becomes disconnected from the world and from himself after the death of his mother.

Here's a rum coincidence. In the past week, the Royal Court has opened two plays that jump about in time in a dizzying, resolutely non-linear fashion. That, though, is pretty much where the similarity ends. Performed in the Theatre Upstairs, David Eldridge's Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness makes fluid and lightning temporal shifts in an effort to get inside the psychology of a thirtysomething man who becomes disconnected from the world and from himself after the death of his mother.

Now in the main downstairs theatre, we have Richard Wilson's slickly directed premiere of The Woman Before, an intriguing new play by the German dramatist Roland Schimmelpfennig. Here the accent is on black absurdity leading to horror, and the mucking about with chronology is conducted in a spirit of deadpan mordant mischief. This is the basic situation. The piece is set in the large hallway of a flat that is just about to be vacated by a fortysomething couple, Frank and Claudia (Nigel Lindsay and Saskia Reeves) and their 19-year-old son Andi (Tom Riley). This is where they have always lived, but now they are about to embark on a new life abroad and the hall is full of packing-cases.

But then out of the blue an attractive woman lands on their threshold. Twenty-four years ago during a brief relationship with her, Frank had made the usual claims of undying love and had sung her the pop song that vows "Will I wait a lonely lifetime/If you want me to - I will". Played with a quietly implacable sense of entitlement by the excellent Helen Baxendale, Romy Vogtlander (for it is she) has finally come to claim her man. Sent on her way by the appalled wife, Romy winds up being brought back into the flat, unconscious and in the arms of their son, having been struck in the street by a stone thrown by Andi's soon-to-be-deserted girlfriend, Tina (Georgia Taylor). In a play that otherwise maintains a dottily strict unity of place, it's Tina's worried eyewitness observation of the block of flats that gives us the one external perspective.

The absurd, comically malign premise of the piece is rendered more absurd and comically malign in its development by the ceaseless temporal trickery of the story-telling. A scene will be played and then with a whooshing noise, a dip of lights, a flash of the green neon-frame round Mark Thompson's witty set, and a large sign indicating "Ten minutes earlier" or "Later that night around half past three" or "Two days earlier" etc, it will be run again to let you see what immediately preceded it or be put in a fresh perspective by the revelation of past or future events. The effect is one of fracture and fractiousness and, though occasionally perplexed, the audience looks down on events from a superior plane.

In David Eldridge's Incomplete Acts, the temporal shifts back and forth come to seem like second nature, a very direct way of gaining access to the hero's confusion. In The Woman Before, the jumps and rewinds and leaps forward deliberately draw attention to their own artificiality. They point up the ironies of a situation in which Frank can't even recall Romy when he first claps eyes on her again and in which this woman seductively lures the son into repeating the crime of faithlessness (against Tina) which she feels his father committed against her.

Nigel Lindsay is beautifully bemused and tempted as Frank, while Saskia Reeves is very clever casting as the wife. We know from her terrific performance in Stephen Poliakoff's Sweet Panic that she can communicate the quiet obsessiveness of a stalker. Here, she makes Claudia's justified suspiciousness of Frank (who, by never mentioning Romy, indicates that she either meant nothing to him or too much) stray into morbidity. How great was their marriage, in fact? Unlike in Eldridge's play, the characters here seem to be doubly the victims of a trick - inflicted both by fate and by the dramatist.

To 18 June (020-7565 5000)

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