THEATRE Pentecost, Donmar Warehouse, London

Stewart Parker's play about lives lived on Belfast's sectarian frontline eschews bullet-headedness and reaps considerable dividends, says David Benedict
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The Independent Culture
In Stewart Parker's engrossing, magnificently moving Pentecost there are, in between bursts of laughter, moments of rapt stillness that other playwrights would kill for. His love of language and his impressive control of structure belie the calmly naturalistic surface, creating a skilfully layered evening that draws you further and further into the hearts and minds of his characters.

Although the play is set in a marooned Belfast house, this isn't one of those hackneyed "trapped in a room" plays. Little about this intimate drama is predictable. The action takes place during the momentous Ulster Workers' Council Strike of 1974, in which militant loyalist workers toppled the power-sharing executive intended to replace direct rule from London with local authority divided between Protestants and Catholics; but anyone scared off by an ignorance of history and politics can relax. Suspicions of dry debate or angry one-sided polemic are swept aside by richly textured writing that glows with warmth and wit.

Trombonist Lenny has inherited the last inhabited house stranded between Protestant and Catholic ghettos. His estranged wife Marian has sold up her antiques business and offers to buy it, lock, stock and barrel, which he agrees to in return for a divorce. Having installed herself, she becomes fascinated by its previous tenant, Lily Matthews, who, as old as the century, lived there until her death, a situation rife with symbolic and dramatic significance. Three other characters take up residence: Marian's childhood friend Ruth (a wonderfully self-contained Morna Regan), who has left her physically abusive husband for the third time; Lenny's sardonic, muesli- munching friend Peter (a taut, wily Paul Hickey), returning from Birmingham and remembering that homecoming induces "the exact opposite of homesickness"; and, crucially, the chillingly repressed Michele Forbes as Lily's fierce ghost.

Parker's roles are gifts to actors, their ideas and passions rooted in dramatic journeys, the urgency of their private needs and dreams influenced by and reflecting upon the wider political events. Eleanor Methven (a founder-member of the excellent Belfast company Charabanc) glides effortlessly between gently revealed heartbreak and hilarious spirited anger as the seemingly impeccable Marian. Brian Doherty meets her moment by moment, hinting at steel beneath Lenny's fecklessness.

Lynne Parker's sure-footed production for Rough Magic is unusually brave, allowing the text to breathe and subtly revealing the balance of the mirrored plotting. As the writing lifts off in the final 20 minutes of confrontation and resolution, she loses her grip slightly, but the images are so strong, you simply don't care.

A tragic sense of irony hangs unspoken over Pentecost. The sense of hope that hums throughout this powerful, personal search for spiritual renewal is shadowed by the knowledge that, the year after its premiere, Parker died at the age of 47. He left behind a handful of classics. Northern Star, which Rough Magic will revive at the Dublin Theatre Festival, is one. This is another. Go.

Booking: 0171-369 1732. To 28 Sept