Theatre: The ghost in the refrigerator

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The Independent Culture
THE TROUBLE with lynchpin figures like Pearl, the recently-deceased matriarch in Dilys Rose's comic family drama, is the vacuum left by their departure. Relationships, needs and responsibilities must all be rejigged, new configurations sought for the individuals involved - in this case Pearl's husband, Hughie, and their three grown-up daughters. At the same time, the world carries on and has to be negotiated as normal - work done, shopping bought, children looked after - no matter how rawly alien life can feel following a loved one's death.

An inauspicious starting point for comedy, you might think, but one of Rose's key successes, in her first full-length play (after several short- story and poetry collections), is that it synthesises often bitter pathos with pungent, life-affirming humour, avoiding compromise to either. Opening on the evening following Pearl's funeral, with eldest daughter Peg urging her sisters to take home the left-over sandwiches, it immediately establishes food as an emotional and symbolic central motif. Not for nothing does Pearl, as outsized in figure as she was in personality, reappear to her youngest, Teenie, in the fridge, from where she periodically dispenses a mixture of practical wisdom and voluptuous paeans to the pleasures of eating. Food's connotations with motherhood, nourishment, comfort, desire and self-indulgence are thus harnessed as a semi-subliminal backdrop to the play's more naturalistic treatment of these themes, be it middle daughter Dot's vanity about her size 10 figure, or Teenie's child-woman confusion between her need for consolation and her maturing sexuality.

Hughie, meanwhile, has to figure out how to be a widower, which of his wife's roles to let his daughters take over, and how to exert authority while needing their mothering. Phil McCall conveys this and more with a sagely modulated blend of irascibility, vulnerability and histrionic grandstanding, scoring hearty laughs via knowing nods to caricature, but never sacrificing the man's dignity. His character also illuminates the subject of generational value shifts, with the bespoke tailoring skills of Hughie's former trade set against the Philippines-made wedding dresses Peg sells for a living.

Attention to detail, psychological realism and emotional conviction are well to the fore throughout most of Irene Macdougall's production for the Stellar Quines company, with Monica Gibb's Peg particularly affecting in her insistent, increasingly fraught efforts to keep up everyone else's spirits.

It might still sound like hackneyed domestic territory, if it weren't for the finely wrought grit and sparkle of Rose's dialogue - her sure- footed leaps from the personal to the political, from saltiness to sensuality, and her language's colloquial vigour. The play isn't without its problems - some of the characters' relationships fail to convince, Dot's glacially disdainful demeanour is distinctly overdone, the ballroom-dancing metaphor a trifle obvious. The ghost-in-the-fridge device also leaves a few too many questions unanswered, but its basic, structural import - that an absence can be as powerful as a presence - is skilfully carried through and absorbingly explored.

Touring Scotland to 8 May (0131-343 3146)