True Love Lies, Royal Exchange, Manchester<br />Palace Of The End, Royal Exchange Studio, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

When the Canadian playwright Brad Fraser received a call from an ex-lover, now married with teenage children, neither of them could have guessed that this renewed contact would result in a play. But True Love Lies, receiving its world premiere, was triggered by that encounter, Fraser imagining a world in which one's past bursts obstreperously in on the present.

Into Kane and Carolyn's cosily chic suburban life, complete with two kids, comes David McMillan, an old gay flame of Kane's, and a character to whom Fraser refers as "a bit of a doppelgänger". McMillan and Kane will both be familiar to anyone who saw Fraser's Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, which won him the Evening Standard's Most Promising Playwright Award in 1993.

David's arrival has an initially unsettling and subsequently devastating effect on the family. When Madison, the teenage daughter with a line in provocative dressing, starts working in David's restaurant, the dynamics of all the relationships change dramatically. As son Royce is forced to confront his own fears and Madison realises that there's more to adult relationships than just sex, Kane and Carolyn discover in which direction their true love lies.

Braham Murray's adroit, energetic production unfolds on a coolly sophisticated set designed by Johanna Bryant, and moves freely between family kitchen and public restaurant. The in-the-round audience can see, thanks to the Perspex furniture; but it can't always hear the fast repartee.

What comes across at first as an evening of slick jokiness, glittering with sexually explicit dialogue, develops into a play of remarkably complex texture. John Kirk plays Kane as a man still ambivalent about his sexual orientation, while in Teresa Banham's spirited Carolyn you can see from whom Madison (a voracious Amy Beth Hayes) inherits her zest for life.

Fraser has you wonder if David will take Royce (a perceptive portrayal of a dysfunctional teenager from Oliver Gomm) under his protective wing. Or will he seduce Carolyn in an act of revenge on his former lover? The play hinges on Jonny Phillips's magnetic David, who, with just a hint of sleaziness in his lupine looks, reveals in one of the play's twists that even he is not all that he seems.

In the Studio, Palace of the End, a trio of coruscating monologues written by the Canadian playwright Judith Thompson based on news events, offers a moral positive in contrast to the small world in which Fraser is operating. In "My Pyramids", Thompson gets inside the head of heavily pregnant Lynndie England as she tries to make sense of her image as the dumb sexual torturer of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib. Kellie Bright conveys both glassy-eyed brightness and baffled incomprehension in a deft portrayal of nonchalance that fools no one.

The second character is the arms expert Dr David Kelly, who in "Harrowdown Hill" wearily asks us to share his last moments and explains, presciently and movingly, that he may die but his presence will remain. He is superbly embodied by Robert Demeger.

And in "Instruments of Yearning" Eve Polycarpou conquers the hardest of roles, a ghost, detailing with chilling calmness the wrenching true story of Nehrjas, whose inhumane treatment at the hands of Saddam Hussein's secret police in the 1970s is almost unbearable to hear. Greg Hersov's sensitive production is all the more effective for the sparseness of the set, the painterly lighting and the tying together of these three compelling tales with the lightest of final touches.

Until 21 February; 0161 833 9833

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