THEATRE The ageing of innocence

What I Did in the Holidays Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
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From The Turn of the Screw through The Fallen Idol to Mamet's Cryptogram, a striking proportion of the stage- and screen-works that have a child at their centre deal with the betrayal of that child's innocence, often by showing how he or she is betrayed by an adult into betraying someone else. Watch a child actor playing such a role and you find your attention distracted by the uncomfortable doubling of the effect. Will the pre-pubertal performer, you wonder, come to look back on this job experience as a parallel case of exploited innocence when he or she is old enough to appreciate the full significance of artwork only partially understood at the time?

This problem is successfully skirted in Mike Alfreds's fine production of What I Did in the Holidays, a new, intricately observed Hardy-meets- Chekhov-and-O'Neill play by Philip Osment set in 1963 on a delapidated Devon farm. Pivotal to the piece, on the verge of puberty and grammar school, short-trousered, brainy Morley is brought to life in an uncannily arresting performance by a young adult actor, Antony Taylor. Squirming around on the grass and lolling in positions that mix childish awkwardness with awakening adolescent flirtation, Taylor shows you a boy whose homosexuality is on the brink of becoming conscious. It's a portrayal that manages to heighten, through its stylised physicality, a sense of Morley's inner world, without either having to compromise a child actor or condescending to the fictional child.

Friendless and much the youngest of his complicatedly riven family, Morley asserts his power by grassing on his seniors and playing on their fears. When he gets a personal postcard from their absconded mother, he's jeered at as a mummy's boy by his jealous 30-year-old brother Rob (Steve Nicolson). But Morley gets his own back by exposing before strangers the fact that Rob, who was kept from school to work on the farm by their feckless father, can barely read the coveted postcard.

The boy needs a soulmate, and he seems to have been provided with one when a pair of Scottish hitch-hikers takes refuge and then jobs on the farm. But Fergus O'Donnell's excellent Andy, a tragic blend of aggression and vulnerability, isn't quite the cowboy-story role model the child imagines. The scars on this youth's stomach, which Morley fingers with a nave yet sexualised awe, aren't trophies of combat but self-mutilations, and Andy too has an ambiguous dependency on someone which the child will be tricked into exposing.

Like his award-winning Dearly Beloved (also set in the West Country and directed by Alfreds), Osment's new piece displays a rich talent for orchestrating the emotional rivalries and insecurities of a large tangled group. There are many fine performances, especially from Kate Byers as the disappointment- bound older sister and from Chris Crooks as the sly father whose weakness and bad faith are like a body odour. A scene in which a picnic is disrupted by an angry wasp gives you the measure of Alfreds's and the company's skills. You don't see or hear it; it's from the hallucinatory lifelikeness of its staged effect, not from stage-effects, that the wasp is palpably there.

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Paul Taylor