Theatre: Life Support Aldwych Theatre, London

You would surely run out of fingers if you were to count the number of occasions that Alan Bates has taken the lead in a Simon Gray play. In the moving, astute, often funny Life Support at the Aldwych, the actor does this author especially proud - not least because, for some of the time, he has to perform a solo double-act. Keeping vigil at the bedside of his wife - who is in a persistent vegetative state as the result of a bee sting - the Bates character, Jeff Golding, conducts imaginary marital conversations in which he plays both parts. He'll try anything which might jog her back into consciousness.

Bates has always excelled at presenting the barbed waggishness and quizzical, toying superiority that are a cover, in some people, for lacerating despair and self-dislike. Here, he superbly suggests a man struggling to master overwhelming grief, remorse, rage and tenderness with a kind of edged, floundering flippancy.

Jeff is a fraudulent travel writer who has made a mint out of portraying himself as the lovable accident-prone comic butt in misadventures he invents in the safety of his hotel suite. That joke has now, however, hideously backfired: his wife's condition is the direct result of the one occasion in his life when he actually behaved like his phoney prose persona. It in no way eases his guilt that the accident happened during a snarling alcoholic row. Perhaps the bee was his poison-bearing proxy.

"Everything glowed with a gleam. Yet we were looking away!" At one point Jeff quotes these lines of Thomas Hardy, acutest of poets about the repinings of widowerhood. In one sense, Gray's play intimates, Hardy had it easy. At least his first wife was incontrovertibly dead, whereas, given the indeterminacy of the circumstances, Jeff has the privations of bereavement without the emotional privileges, and suffers the anguish of feeling that his love is insufficient to call his wife back to life. In one simple but powerfully affecting touch, Georgina Hale (excellent as the bed-bound spouse) is able, at moments, to take over the lines of dialogue playing in Jeff's head. But it's significant - perhaps a mark of his emotional honesty - that he can only give her this free lease of life when steadfastly looking away and pretending to read the paper. When he turns, she's a vegetable again.

One of the paradoxes of Jeff's predicament is brought home in the defiantly tasteless (and slightly contrived-seeming) episode in which he calls in his mistress and literary agent (Carole Nimmons) to discuss their affair in front of his comatose spouse in the hope of reviving her. After all, he declares, he has nothing to lose. To the riposte that this ruse might lose him his marriage, he replies, "If there's still a marriage to lose, I'm a lucky man, aren't I?"

Harold Pinter's meticulous and absorbing production boasts fine performances from Nickolas Grace as Jeff's outrageous, sponging, gay actor brother and from Frank McCusker as a volubly caring, sharing doctor, whose interest in Jeff's case turns out to be more professionally self-interested than is seemly. There are some excellent jokes. (It was love at first sight for the brother when a black youth held a knife to his stomach: "It takes most couples years to get to that point," comments Jeff.) At Tuesday's first night, a mobile phone went off in the stalls during one of the emotional climaxes. It says a lot for the power of Alan Bates's performance that the moment was far from ruined.

To 18 Oct. Booking: 0171-416 6003

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