Theatre: Nod off and die

"THERE ARE some fucks for which a man would watch his wife and children drown in a freezing sea." Hanif Kureishi is evidently very pleased with that sentence, for he has now used it in two successive works. It first appeared in Intimacy, his short novel of 1998. It resurfaces in Sleep With Me, premiered in an expensive-looking Traverse production by Anthony Page at the Cottesloe. Not that it has taken strenuous shoehorning to get the line in; there are blatant similarities between the two pieces.

Wedging you inside the mind of a writer of screen adaptations on the night he prepares to leave his wife and two little boys for another woman, Intimacy is a first-person confession in which self-justification masquerades as sensitivity and courageous honesty. Infidelity, it seems, is evidence of a questing spirit that refuses to give up on life. Duty can be left to dullards and the living dead. "Hurting someone is an act of reluctant intimacy," avows the narrator, with typically twisted logic. Kureishi has manfully overcome that reluctance.

Sleep With Me would appear to be a response to the charges of solipsism which the novel invited. A similar screen- writer broods over a similar decision. Here, though, the setting is sub-Chekhovian: a summer weekend at a country retreat on which converge an ill-assorted flock of lovers, ex- and would-be lovers, the odd, unreconstructed Lefty, a hideously patronising portrait of a nanny and people who, shaped by the Sixties and disoriented by the Eighties, have sold their souls to the media. The intention, presumably, is to be more objective and to let dissenting voices in. But, unlike Chekhov, Kureishi has no talent for impartial compassion.

For example, the wife (Sian Thomas) is an off-putting specimen of nerve- frazzled overmanagement. When she says that she thinks "the family is the point you can live from", it's with the air of someone claiming: "the straitjacket is a wonderful aid to self-development".

Kureishi is careful to give Stephen, the male absconder (Sean Chapman) a female counterpart (a sympathetic Penny Downie) in troubled discontent with family and longing for liberation. This is the kind of play where people bark at each other sociologically identifying lines with all the layered texture of shouting in a bathroom. Moreover, it rigs the argument by having its deserters bang on about "life". Well, who isn't on the side of "life" thus ill-defined? Replace it with the phrase "self-pitying selfishness", and the outlook might be different. The play is supposed to "place" Stephen, but mitigates his guilt by showing him propelled into the final desertion by the treacherously self-interested help of friends. You are left with the strong suspicion that Sleep With Me is just the kind of awful autobiographical drama he might write.

Box office: 0171-452 3000. A version of this review appeared in some editions of yesterday's paper