Theatre: East Lynne Greenwich Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
Imagine a production of Oedipus Rex in which Oedipus periodically steps out of the action to explain that he comes from a society which doesn't understand the needs of children and regularly abandons them on hillsides with spikes through their heels. Or picture Medea taking time out to let you know that Euripides really didn't appreciate the feelings of a woman who kills her own offspring. No sane director would entertain the idea for a minute. All the same, this is more or less what happens in Lisa Evans's adaptation of East Lynne, Mrs Henry Wood's celebrated mid-Victorian tear-jerker.

A quick plot resume: Lady Isabel Vane is forced out of her beloved family home, East Lynne. When her father dies, leaving a mountain of debt, she finds herself an unwelcome guest with her brother and his wife. Hemmed in by unhappiness and poverty, she reluctantly agrees to marry the dry solicitor who now owns East Lynne, only to find she is no more at home in an establishment run by his tyrannical sister. When she is persuaded that he is enjoying a liaison with his childhood sweetheart, she reluctantly agrees to run away with a dashing military man, by whom she has child. He abandons her.

Disfigured and childless after a railway accident, she returns to East Lynne under an assumed identity to become governess to her own children, and is forced to stand by as a stranger while the younger one dies. She herself then dies and is buried in a lonely, miserable grave.

At which point, the deceased Lady Isabel emerges to tell the audience that Wood's Victorian piety left no room for women like her. Well, it is true that fallen women were not terrifically popular among the Victorian middle-classes, but it's hardly a novel piece of information, and certainly not relevant to your appreciation of Wood's story. The novel does express disapproval of Lady Isabel's actions, but if it didn't make her plight sympathetic, the story wouldn't have been gripping readers and theatre audiences for the past 130 years.

There is a gratingly moralistic edge to Evans's adaptation - she even denies her audience the cathartic pleasure of hearing Lady Isabel's most celebrated line: "Dead! And never called me mother" (admittedly not original Wood, but East Lynne without that line is like Hamlet without the soliloquy).

Philip Franks's production, however, has a straight-faced simplicity - enhanced by Rachel Power's sweetly innocent Lady Isabel - that almost makes up for that. There is the odd clunking moment (adult actors representing children through offstage falsetto), and the action in the first half takes a little time to get going.

Once the production hits its stride, though, it moves along swiftly and enjoyably. And it lets you see the more interesting themes lurking underneath the social-issue drama that Evans points up: this is really a drama about female rivalry and the sentimental power of property. By the end, East Lynne may not look like one of the world's great tragedies, but it's undeniably a gripping melodrama.

n To 16 March. Booking: 0181-858 7755

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