Theatre: Demons sensitively brought to life

Demons And Dybbuks Young Vic, London
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THIS REVIVAL of Demons and Dybbuks is a spirited rallying by Mike Alfreds' Method and Madness Company which last spring went into receivership. First surfacing at the start of 1998, the project involved a group of 10 actors committed to working exclusively with each other over three years on a gradually emerging repertoire, which would tour nationally.

The whole concept was a magnificent rebuke to the endemic short-termism of British theatre, where if actors remain together for a mere 12 months, high-mindedly eschewing the temptations of lucrative TV work, they're considered a seasoned ensemble. Audiences rightly raved over the production of Platonov, which the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg brought to the Barbican in June. But people forget that such excellence is the fruit of a permanent company philosophy, where five years of work can go into a piece before a final script is arrived at.

Demons and Dybbuks is a fluent adaptation of 12 short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer that move from the Polish shtetls of his childhood to the apartments of his refugee life in New York. This first London airing is the result of a group of Method and Madness actors joining forces with Theatre of the Moment. Performed on a rectangular stage edged with piles of books and with no props other than an array of wooden chairs, it's a marvellous showcase for the company's skills in fluent story-telling and precise, understatedly witty mime. All attired in identical dark suits or dresses and picked out in shifting pools of light, the actors conjure up an imaginative universe.

Whether it be on a tour bus from hell in Spain or at a Manhattan party, this is the world where people come trailing the demons of European Jewry's tragic past. But here that tragedy has a habit of being recycled as hilarious guilty farce as the hapless writer-character and singer-surrogate signs himself on the receiving end of unwanted responsibilities. Bearing the sole surviving copy of a book by her grandfather, who died in the Holocaust, a predatory female fan tracks him down to his New York home. She claims that she has been possessed by one of the Dybbuks in his stories. There follows a riotously queasy sequence, superbly timed here, where her determined attentions keep being interrupted by threatening phone calls from her husband and mother.

The guilt of the survivor is strong in tales such as the one where a refugee can't decide whether an insulting waiter is an astral projection or a delusion. With great delicacy, the company brings out mischief, sadness and a hint of sulphur and makes us impatient for a long-term reconstitution.

Paul Taylor

To 25 Sept (0171-928 6363). A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper