There Came a Gypsy Riding, Almeida, London<br/>Ghosts,The Gate, London<br/>The Taming of the Shrew /Twelfth Night, Old Vic, London

All in the family
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The Independent Culture

The distant hills look as if they're blanketed in snow although it is the height of summer. In Frank McGuinness's new play, There Came a Gypsy Riding, a timber-beamed cottage stands surrounded by barren grey rocks and dead trees. This is the rural west of Ireland but modern-day. The cottage is a holiday home owned by the McKenna family, or what remains of them.

Two years back, Margaret (Imelda Staunton) and her rich, pub-owning husband Leo (Ian McElhinney) were shattered by the death of their teenage son, Gene. He got blind drunk and slit his wrists down on the shore. Now his parents and two siblings, Elaine Cassidy's volatile Louise and Aidan McArdle's more patient, slow-burning Simon, have gathered to mark what would have been Gene's 21st birthday. Ultimately, the family is moving towards some kind of peace, but not before clashes, a shocking discovery and an intense bout of cathartic madness on the part of Staunton's Margaret.

Now and then There Came a Gypsy Riding can feel theatrically strained, if not hokey. The dialogue is obtrusively strewn with songs. Margaret and her offspring also quote at length from Keats before suddenly being seized by ancient superstitions and obsessing about how Gene has put a curse on them all. However, having translated a clutch of Greek tragedies, McGuinness is deliberately incorporating modern variations on those dramatic sagas with his lyrical digressions and his exploration of how suicidal impulses, boozing and bullying can pass down the generations like a blight.

This piece discernibly owes a further debt to Festen and, more quirkily, to Alan Bennett's The Lady in the Van. But Eileen Atkins's Bridget, the cranky old woman from up the road, is explosively funny, with priceless comic timing and corking lines. Elegantly skeletal and using a filthy old pushchair as a Zimmer frame, her mix of surreal battiness and near-regal sniffiness is irresistible. She is disturbing too, with a wily gleam in her eye and a nasty habit of rubbing salt in the family's wounds - even as she may be helping them to heal. At points, she could be some impish spirit of the place or a voice in their subconscious.

In fact, the acting in Michael Attenborough's production is excellent throughout. McElhinney's Leo, having fostered a bluff image, proves to be a moving, deeply harrowed man. And Staunton is a ferociously tough mother, veined with desperation and undemonstrative love - a performance of characteristic integrity, at once dowdily everyday and beautifully detailed in the grain. Besides taking a strong line on the selfishness of suicide, McGuinness counters the cliché of Irish sentimentality, suggesting that being harsh is just as much part of the national character and may be one way of surviving grief.

He has been working on an adaptation of Ghosts as well (opening later this month at Bristol Old Vic). That explains the additional echoes that reverberate if you cut along to the Gate and catch playwright-translator Amelia Bullmore's alternative new version of Ibsen's domestic tragedy about a dying son and a family curse - here in the form of inherited syphilis.

A claustrophobic wooden cabin is surrounded by wintry Nordic darkness. The windows stream with rain as the wealthy widow and mother, Niamh Cusack's Mrs Alving, stares out bleakly. If Lez Brotherston's set design looks puzzlingly modern, with the windows being sheet glass, maybe this is because Ibsen's issues are not entirely historical. Cusack recently starred in Bullmore's excellent contemporary play Mammals, playing another distraught parent and cheated-on wife drawn to an old flame. Still, everyone is in period costume here because, after all, Mrs Alving has been trapped in her marriage by 19th-century codes of rigid propriety.

Cusack is outstanding, making Alving a sweet, spirited woman with liberal instincts who initially greets Finbar Lynch's Pastor Manders flirtatiously - full of hope now she is free of her debauched and alcoholic husband. By the end, repulsed by Manders and faced with the horror of assisting her son Osvald's suicide, she is a heartrendingly frantic figure.

Some might object that Bullmore makes the dialogue more upfront, less tensely cagey than the original. But what comes over is how radically scathing Ibsen was of his country's bourgeois and clerical hypocrisies. The pity is that director Anna Mackmin hasn't drawn absolutely sharp-focused performances from her whole cast. Christian Coulson's runs flatly through Osvald's early scenes, albeit growing more feverous. Meanwhile, Lynch (Cusack's partner in real life) is still tightening up his performance, initially riveting and exuding repressed sexual cravings, but then losing his edge. Nonetheless, worth seeing.

In Edward Hall's touring double bill - performed by his all-male troupe, Propeller - The Taming of the Shrew is rather a slog. The play is substantially to blame, but one also yearns for the psychological acumen of Greg Doran's last RSC production when Hall's uneven ensemble indulge in shallow slapstick. The low-budget design is cluttered as well. That said, it is refreshing to see the normally axed prologue tackled, with the Christopher Sly (portrayed as a failed bridegroom) slipping into the role of Petruchio as if in a drunken dream. The violence takes a serious turn too, leaving Simon Scardifield's rumbustious, stroppy Katherine being taught a potently depressing lesson by Dugald Bruce-Lockhart's yobbish Petruchio. He is so dim he barely realizes that he is the ultimate loser for having bullied her into submission, twisting her potential love into bitter sorrow.

Bruce-Lockhart then turns into a brash, butch yet flouncy Olivia ruling her own house in Twelfth Night. This production is less exquisite than Declan Donnellan's Russian all-male staging, but it is often poignant and buoyant fun. Scardifield is a sweetly fey Aguecheek, floundering around hilariously in boxing gloves. Bob Barrett's Malvolio is outrageously ridiculous, with his buttocks bulging over his yellow stockings. Then against the odds, when cruelly tormented, he gains almost tragic stature. Though tiresomely fluting, Tam Williams's Viola manages to convey pained intensity in his/her secretly smitten scenes with Orsino.

Having males playing females disguised as males certainly puts your head in a dizzying spin, and Hall strikingly has a masked chorus of spirits who haunt the characters like death's-heads, in tune with Twelfth Night's lurking obsession with mortality, a constant reminder that "Youth's a stuff will not endure."

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'There Came a Gypsy Riding' (020 7359 4404) to 3 March; 'Ghosts' (020 7229 5387) to 17 February; 'Twelfth Night'/ 'The Taming of the Shrew' (0870 060 6628) to 17 February

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