Theatre: Time and the Room; Edinburgh Festival Theatre

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"It's dangerous to read a play without knowing what's what," sneers an unsympathetic character. It's downright fatal to direct the seemingly ineluctable dramatist Botho Strauss unless you not only know what's what, but, more importantly, how to communicate it to your cast and to the audience. Having seen this play once before in a humourless, leaden, deadening production, I thought if I never saw it again it would be too soon. It is therefore a huge pleasure to report that Martin Duncan's Nottingham Playhouse production is nothing short of a triumph.

From the moment the front cloth rises on Wolfgang Gobbels's airy, gallery- like set with its towering white walls slowly flooded by overwhelmingly beautiful lighting, the production glows with confidence. An air of consummate artificiality hangs over the first act, but the clarity of the acting, the placing and pacing of individual dramatic moments weave a spell. Search for narrative or quantifiable "meaning" and you're in for a frustrating time. Treat it like music and let the ideas play off one another, and it takes off.

Everything hinges on the working of Time, with the action dominated by scenes of watches and watching. Tyrone Huggins, as half of a pair of Gilbert and George clones in exquisitely cut suits, provides a measured commentary on this strange February day; Alexandra Mathie, looking like a young neurotic Glynis Johns in a red wig, is thrilled by Swatches, allowing her watches for every conceivable time and location: "There will be watches for afternoons at the Dolphinarium, even watches for specific hours of the day..."

Strauss's sharply etched, quirkily, mysteriously intertwined characters are brimming with surprises, and Duncan's astonishingly precise staging results in delicious gags and theatrical coups, from multicoloured cigarette lighters cascading from a cupboard, to a character vanishing in front of your very eyes. Anita Dobson in her best performance in ages brings an incredible warmth and humour to the role of Marie, her passions leading you through the text and charging up two wildly contrasting scenes of sexual attraction opposite the excellent David Lemkin.

The evening is an object lesson in direction. Take the scene where Dobson hands over her flat to stranger, John Ramm. From the second he walks in, electricity surges between them through the room and Duncan whips up an almost unbearable tension from thin air. Strauss's plays work by a process of attrition, with dramatic friction created by his juxtaposition of character and ideas. Duncan and his translator Jeremy Sams prove that Strauss may handle serious ideas in unconventional forms but that his work, far from being an arid intellectual exercise, is potentially thrilling. With this amount of flair on display, it cannot fail to evoke a response. Unmissable.

At the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until Sat (0131-229 9697); then at the Nottingham Playhouse (0115-941 9419) from 3 to 7 Sept

DAVID BENEDICT

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