Theatre: Honey, I shrunk the kids

OUR FATHER THE ALMEIDA LONDON
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The Independent Culture
EDNA O'BRIEN'S new play is not afraid to take a route so well- trodden that sometimes this Irish beauty's creative distinctiveness all but disappears down the deep ruts made by previous travellers along the road.

But then, in Lynne Parker's lovingly shaded production, there will be a sudden prolonged flurry of unforced humour, tender insight and lyrical sensibility that suggest uncommon authorial gifts.

The set-up here (in the Ireland of the early Seventies) is very familiar: a tricky, rivalrous family reunion to celebrate the wedding anniversary of the parents at a Big House and estate that are threatened by economic shifts and fecklessness.

The drama could almost be subtitled Three Sisters Go to the Cherry Orchard, with the big difference that, as the actual title advertises, the patriarch of the household is still very much alive. Played with a terrific volatile, overbearing quality by David Troughton, Jamie is the kind of man who can switch - in a split second and with a chillingly mock-jovial cackle - from being the life and soul of the party to its death.

Nursing a drink problem, Jamie extroverts his self-disappointment into spurts of rage. Emasculatingly competitive with his mean, weak, on-the- make son (Darragh Kelly), he almost flagrantly hints that his relationship with Aislin McGuckin's Emer (the youngest daughter who has set up in London as a writer) may have been a great deal closer than she ever desired.

If the play is Chekhovian, it demonstrates by default that Chekhov was a master of structure as well as subtext, mood, and ensemble plate-spinning. But there are sequences in Our Father where the piece hits one perfect note after the other. I'm thinking particularly of the lamplit intimate conversation that takes place at the start of Act Two between Emer and Stella McCusker's beautifully played mother - a worn, dignified woman who once had a better life and a love in Brooklyn before returning to Ireland and making the bad mistake of marrying Jamie.

As Emer bathes her mother's feet, the talk between the two of them shows O'Brien's skill at blending the gently quirky ("They had a new carpet in the hall for a week and I didn't know," declares the mother in response to the not-so-belated news that another daughter is yet again pregnant) with undercurrents of passionate disturbance.

So alike deep down, Emer and mother are more alike on the surface too than the religious older woman is prepared to admit.

The lull before the storm turns into the tempest proper when the rest of the family arrives, most of them plastered, for the grand dinner.

Very much not on best behaviour, the territorially ambitious daughter- in-law (shades of Natasha in Three Sisters) puts on a hilariously revealing drunken display, declaring the other women to be full of themselves "like those caterers at the races".

Edna O'Brien recently published a book about James Joyce, the writer whose great novel Ulysses is partly about types of paternity, from the "legal fiction" caused by the blind rut of intercourse to other deeper varieties.

The play, by contrast, looks at the pain which is caused by the unignorable fact of a father who is never a real father "for one minute" to his daughter Emer. It manages to do so with grace and an admirable absence of self- pity.

To 23 Dec (0171-359 4404)

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