Theatre: This Lime Tree; Bower Bush Theatre, London

The title of Conor McPherson's play comes from a poem by Coleridge which describes, basically, the poet's feelings on being stuck at home while his friends go out for a walk. But even imprisoned in his lime tree bower, the poet finds consolation in contemplating the joys he's missing, and in the signs of life that surround him.

In the same way, McPherson manages to conjure joy out of bleak-seeming lives. The play consists of three interlocking stories told by three men: teenage Joe and his older brother Frank, motherless sons of a chip-shop owner, and Ray, a philosophy lecturer and their sister's part-time boyfriend. The action takes place in the bleakest of settings, a Dublin seaside town out of season; and their monologues, describing events that happen over the same few days, revolve around rape, betrayal, viciously casual sex, hangovers, armed robbery and projectile vomiting. But from this grim, disquieting material there emerges a very funny, compassionate and, finally, even optimistic play.

A lot of that is down to the cast in McPherson's own production. Ian Cregg's hesitant, serious Joe suggests beautifully the character's paradoxical mix of innocence and self-knowledge; by contrast, Conor Mullen's Ray, a hard-drinking, intellectually arrogant sexual predator, is a hugely entertaining portrait of cruelty, self-obsession and excess. Finally, Niall Shanahan is superb at putting across Frank's suppressed anger, and the sentimental affection for his father that fuels it.

A lot is also down, though, to the sheer brilliance of McPherson's writing. Some, if not most, of the reviews of This Lime Tree Bower have qualified approval with talk of his "limitations" - he doesn't write dialogue, he only writes for men. Both points are true, but it's hard to see in what ways McPherson has been limited; certainly not in terms of narrative or emotional complexity. These three narratives glance at each other in striking and subtle ways, showing how an individual's point of view is inflected by memories and fantasies - not just his own, but other people's. And in three distinct voices, McPherson manages to endow everyday speech with the rhythmic strength and compression and the imagistic vividness of poetry. You wonder how dialogue could express the interaction between people better than monologue does here, or what skills are required to write dialogue that McPherson hasn't already shown in abundance.

And while he doesn't write in women's voices, he doesn't offer an exclusively masculine picture of the world. "We were the boys," Frank says, looking back at a weekend the three spent together in Cork; men's friendship is celebrated here. But it's noticeable that women (Frank and Joe's sister Carmel, Ray's sexual victims, a raped girl) come across as consistently the better sex, their example or just their presence a continual reproach to the men. It's in finding a new image of his dead mother, remembering her not dying but laughing on a beach, that Joe finds peace of mind, and the play's remarkable alchemy takes place. If only more playwrights had limitations like McPherson's, theatre would be in a very healthy state.

To 3 August (0181-743 3388)

ROBERT HANKS

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