Theatre: Jude the Obscure, Lyric Hammersmith, London

Mike Alfreds strips bare Hardy's tale of marital woe and thwarted ambition and risks farcical overload in the pursuit of tragic simplicity. By Paul Taylor

In terms of general tone and comportment, Jude the Obscure and Private Lives have about as much in common as Blithe Spirit and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. What, then, is director Mike Alfreds up to putting his dramatisation of Hardy's grim novel in rep with Coward's flighty comedy?

Watching Alfred's stark, stripped-down evocation of Jude, you realise that there's a method in the madness of Madness and Method, the company that has brought these works together. Like Coward's Elyot and Amanda, Jude, the stone-mason who dreams of studying at Oxford, and the emancipated, compulsively contradictory Sue Bridehead have a deep, volatile affinity for each other that their marriage to quite unsuitable partners complicates and confirms. But whereas Coward's theatrical egotists can defy convention with arrogant impunity in the age of the gay divorcee, Jude and Sue are brought low by Victorian bigotry in a book that questions the marriage tie from a number of angles.

These similarities and differences hit you because of Alfreds's spare, diagrammatic staging of Jude, the whole novel brought to life by the same four actors who will next week appear in Private Lives. One intractable problem the adaptor faces is that, compared to the satisfyingly economic and stylised symmetries of the partner swaps in the Coward, the chronic vacillating in the Hardy, which seems realistic enough on the page, veers towards wearisome farce on the stage because of the necessary plot accelerations. Then again, despite the involving intensities of the Mahler music that underscores moments here, a performance style whereby the actors slip out of their main characters to narrate, offer authorial pronouncements, or to enact minor figures, keeps you, in my view, at a slight distance from the turmoil.

There are certain features that the staging throws into splendid relief. The high wooden Gothic window frames that get whirled around sharply emphasise Jude's outsider status in the Christminster (Oxford) he has romanticised, while the fact that, at critical junctures, Sue is so often stationed behind a window brings out how she needs the safety of a barrier between them before she can be passionate with Jude. I wasn't sure about the decidedly queasy-looking puppet who represents both the hero as a boy and Jude's son, Little Father Time, since the two have quite different modes of fictional existence. But the uncluttered look of the piece allows for stage pictures of keen lucidity, as when the bed on which Jude is dying is juxtaposed to the bed on which the neurotically repentant Sue has sacrificed herself to married propriety.

The performances of Geraldine Alexander, Martin Marquez, Abigail Thaw and Simon Robson are commentaries on, as much as embodiments of, the characters but expertly convey the brittle, frigid, calculating flirtatiousness of Sue, the writhing humiliation and anguished perseverance of Jude, Arabella's ripe animal cunning and the depressed desiccation of Phillotson. It will be fascinating to see how this quartet fare in the rather more glamorous world of Private Lives and in Flesh and Blood, the new Philip Osment play that will complete the repertoire.

Booking: 0181-741 2311. To 27 July

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