THEATRE / Love hurts: Paul Taylor on September Tide at the Comedy

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A storm in September, remarks a character in September Tide, can do more damage than all the winter months combined. A weather forecast or a warning to people in their fifties? Both, it appears, for in Daphne du Maurier's 1948 play, Cornish weather proves strenuously responsive to people's emotions.

A middle-aged woman and her artist son-in-law fall in love without admitting it to each other and, after two months, his feelings are coming to the boil. Cue a nice tempest, a power-cut, and a breakdown in services that leaves his wife stranded elsewhere. Then, to prove to the older woman how much she loves him, have the son-in- law run out into the storm to do something recklessly life- endangering. Then have him come back all sexy and sodden so that she can solicitously remove his shirt.

Corny? Yes, thanks. Also oddly disarming, not entirely without insight and revived now in a persuasive production by Celia Bannerman which stars Susannah York as the widowed mother-in- law, Stella, and Michael Praed as Evan, the young artist. An affecting mix of radiant, slightly girlish romanticism and sad-eyed responsibility, York's Stella is a woman who has failed to keep pace with change. She's as dated as her tea-gown and so, when the couple come to live with her, she's bemused by the studiedly casual, off-hand relationship that exists between her daughter (Hermione Norris) and her new spouse, invested by Praed with a dark, witty disdain and a goading Welsh lilt. Almost from the start, Stella and Evan are drawn to each other. By sheer intuition, he sits down at the piano and plays her favourite old tune, 'I've Got Those Little Boy Blues', at which point any wife who had studied the ways of English drama would have had him on the next train back to London.

Margaret Forster's recent life of Daphne du Maurier suggests that the taboo relationship in the play is a transposition into heterosexual terms of Du Maurier's own illicit passion for Ellen Doubleday, the wife of a New York publisher. What is striking, then, is the degree to which Stella's pre-war values of 'respect, morality and standards' are allowed to win out. True, while tracing the awkward aftermath of the stormy night, the play produces some fine, uncomfortable moments and the return home on navy sick leave of her over-grown juvenile of a son ups the embarrassment levels considerably.

But the end is bathed in a phoney golden haze of self- sacrifice. Conveniently, we are nudged to remember that Evan's mother died when he was 14. Seeing Stella with her son has, he hints, painfully reminded him of what he has missed: a mother to make proud. So he decides to become a real husband to the (under-written) daughter and take her off to live with him in New York. He does this principally, we are led to believe, to gain Stella's maternal approval. That's not so much the basis for a marriage, though, as a new kind of mother-in-law joke.

Continues at the Comedy Theatre, Panton St, London SW1 (071-930 2578)