THEATRE: Mrs Klein: The Palace, Watford

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The Independent Culture
A source of festering resentment for any child, the idea that "mother knows best" is an axiom to grind that comes with knobs on if you happen to be the offspring of a pioneering psychoanalyst who has formed dogmatic theories about earliest infancy, mother-attachment, and a baby's destructive urges and one who even - for years and with a beady, clinical objectivity - used you and your sibling as patients for a paper on "The Role of School in Libidinal Development". One way of getting your own back would be to set up as a rival psychoanalyst. Another would be to seize in vindictive triumph on some proof that this manner of upbringing is fatal and then rub the mother's face in it.

Set in London in 1934 where they are Jewish refugees, Nicholas Wright's cleverly calculated and powerful three-hander, Mrs Klein, dramatises a bitter, twisted showdown between the great Melanie Klein and Melitta, her psychoanalyst daughter, brought on by the unresolved death abroad (climbing accident? suicide?) of her son Hans. Caught in the crossfire is Paula, a third refugee psychoanalyst and friend to both who will need to take care in taking sides.

This 1988 play is revised now at the Palace, Watford by Irina Brook, who has the better luck of being the daughter of a great director (Peter) rather than a major shrink, though a psychoanalyst would doubtless have some presumptuous, predictable things to say about her choice of this work as her second venture into her father's field. It's a production that keeps a sensitive control of mood at the same time as making you writhe with discomfort at the torturousness and blatancy of the power struggle.

With a charm of steely efficiency and a brisk Germanic gutturalness, Gemma Jones excellently captures both the compulsive manipulativeness of Melanie Klein and the deep-down grief-stricken knowledge of the truth from which she defends herself by scornfully dictating the terms on which she's talked to and by keeping up a detached-seeming but self-interested interpretative commentary on her own and everyone else's current state of mind.

What she can't bear is the idea of anything less than utter centrality in her children's psychic lives. It's the news that her daughter is no longer being analysed by a Klein groupie but by an arch antagonist that makes her hurl a glass of wine, as if spitting venom, into the young woman's face (Ruth Lass's fine performance giving you glimpses of the vulnerability still raw under the daughter's carapace of off-hand sophistication and tough professionalism). And the crowning irony is that Klein clearly would, in a way, find it easier to cope with the notion that her son was driven to suicide because of her than that he died by accident on holiday with a female lover. There's a wonderful distraught pettiness, at once comic and tragic, in the way Jones querulously demands, "Who are her parents?": an incongruous touch of Lady Bracknell as she registers the most wounding of blows.

Juliette Dante isn't allowed to communicate enough calculation in Paula's manoeuvrings to become the substitute daughter so some of the ambivalence of the ending gets lost. But much of the rest is well judged, not least the interpolated spectacle at the start of a young boy playing with toys. Presumably, he's the nine-year-old patient Klein refers to. If you knew at the start what you know at the end, you might have a mind to rush to the stage and rescue him.

To 12 April. Booking: 01923 225671