When to Run, Royal Exchange, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

There's no running away from Sophie Woolley in her one-woman comedy play, When to Run. The four female characters she plays become unconsciously and hopelessly entangled. Her writing is too acutely funny to be seriously dark in tone, darting between four females of different ages and social backgrounds, and her ear for the way in which her specific character types speak is a delight.

The setting is a park with a patch of grass, a bench and the silhouette of a cityscape projected overhead. Directed by Gemma Fairlie, Woolley introduces each character with little more than a swift change of posture and accent. Julia is a happy-go-lucky Cockney girl with a dog-walking business called Dogminatrix, a clever joke that seems to have left her devoid of any further ambition except to be married.

Emma is posh, a narcissist hooked on adrenalin. She channels the frustrations and desires that a glossy lifestyle can't satisfy or fulfil into a terrifyingly rigid regime of running. Running for her is about cultivating authority but it's also a vanity thing – a race against nature and the ageing process. Fifteen-year-old Shelley is an Olympic runner in the making, spattering her speech with teenage colloquialisms. She's streetwise but she wants street cred.

It takes no time at all to settle in with the characters and the narrative so that when a fourth woman is introduced she already feels like an old acquaintance. Celia is a control freak, a life-coach who adopts a clipped manner of speaking which is what she "sounds like inside" – and is just how Celia Johnson sounds in Brief Encounter. All four women have strangely static interior lives, rapidly exposed as Woolley gets into her stride.

It is a witty idea, well executed. The common themes Woolley exposes – loneliness, hubris, romantic irony, artlessness – are imaginatively drawn together in these wryly observed monologues. The imagery Woolley creates is fast-moving; text is projected, making the show accessible for those with hearing difficulties.