THEATRE The Mai The Tricycle, London

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The Independent Culture
The young Irish dramatist Marina Carr made a big name for herself last year with Portia Coughlan when it was presented at the Royal Court and she went on to win the distinguished Susan Smith Blackburn Award. I'm not sure that Nicolas Kent is doing Carr many favours now in mounting, at the Tricycle, the English premiere of an earlier work, The Mai. It has so many elements in common with Portia Coughlan, that, if it weren't for the distinctly aqueous nature of the folk legends behind both plays, you'd be tempted to call The Mai a clumsy dry run.

"The orchestration may be different but the tune is always the same," declares Myra Carter's buccaneering, opium-smoking, hundred-year-old grandmother, meaning that life consists of repetitions of the past. Some unwieldy exposition ("We know all this, Grandma Fraochlan") and regular tangled thickets of reminiscence (there's a helpful family tree in the programme) cumbersomely establish that this is true of the four generations of women we are shown - from the feisty centenarian to her disillusioned great grand-daughter Millie (Diane O'Kelly), whose memory of two summers forms the content of the piece.

In Portia Coughlan, the mythic (the fable of an avenging river god who turned the local valley into "the dungeon of the world") and the modern (the bitingly realistic portrayal of a small, inbreeding community) enmesh, with some sense of tragic necessity, as the heroine is inexorably drawn to consummate a suicide pact with her drowned twin brother-lover. In The Mai, by contrast, the linking of levels and the drive towards self-destruction have a trumped-up air.

There's a history in the family of women losing or being deserted by their husbands and destroying their children. So it would seem to be asking - no, kneeling down and begging - for trouble when 40-year-old Mai (Judith Scott) chooses the shores of a lake that is haunted by a legend, involving abandonment and female dissolution into a pool of tears, as the spot on which to build a dream home for the return, after five years, of her philandering composer husband (Robert Gwilym). Where Portia's obsession with her dead twin feels like a magnetic force, Mai's masochistically possessive infatuation with the underwritten, faithless Robert never persuades you that it is much more than a convenience for Ms Carr and her dogged pattern making.

Watching Kent's rather uncomfortable looking production, I was once again more impressed by the dramatist's gift for heightened realistic comedy than by her haunted lyrical mode. There's a lovely stroke in a bitter marital row when Mai yells at her two-timing husband, "I'll have you know that I came first in every exam I took!"; touching, credible and wildly absurd that she should think this distinction relevant as a riposte to sexual humiliation. There's also some nicely observed fun with a pair of self-righteously snooping aunts (Angela Crow and Valerie Lilley), themselves the victims of a mother who first doted on and then neglectingly pined for her nine-fingered-fisherman husband. "I'm 75 years old," announces one of them, "and I'm still not over my childhood." Listening to Myra Carter's piratical, gruffly hooting grandmother (who is the dysfunction- bequething result of a liaison between an Irish spinster and Spanish-Moroccan sailor), you can see why.

Where Carr's use of superstitions and legends is concerned, I'm with the character in Portia Coughlan who says: "Load a bollix is'n y'ax me, thim aul stories" - especially when, as here, they shift what are essentially social problems to the realms of fate.

To 7 June. Booking: 0171-328 1000

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