Theatre Trouble Sleeping / Warehouse, Croydon The Shorewatcher's House / Red Room, London

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The Independent Culture
A saucepan of water simmers in readiness on stage. A late middle- aged woman enters, drops an egg into it, turns over the egg-timer, puts her hand on her hip and waits. And waits. Nick Ward's Trouble Sleeping opens with what must be the longest egg-boiling in theatrical history. Other similar longueurs recur throughout, and most of them are scripted. Just before the egg-timer runs out, in walks the woman's Neanderthal adult son, Terence, for whose stomach the egg is destined. "How was it?" asks the mother, Rosemary, with eager certainty.

"Perfect."

"Have some toast."

"Going to."

In the first moments of the play is crystallised, with Pinterish precision, the sum total of their dubious symbiosis. Despite a slightly unpredictable Fenland accent, Sandra Voe is magnificent as Rosemary, while Peter-Hugo Daly's thick-set jowl, lurching walk and lumbering pedantry are beautifully observed.

The equilibrium is about to be shattered, however, by the arrival of Rosemary's mentally ill sister Ursula (Eva Pearce), who part-owns the house. If this wasn't bad enough, she arrives with an insolent and stunningly attractive young woman, Angela (Miranda Pleasence), in tow. Rosemary knows instantly that this is the biggest threat yet to her monopoly over Terry's affections.

Nick Ward directs his own play withnerves of steel - he relishes unconscionably long silences, and mostly gets away with it. His vision is unremittingly cheerless, despite the humour, as both older and younger generations are portrayed as equally childish and manipulative in the blind pursuit of their wants. Only Terence inspires some pity - not that he shows any spark of generosity to others, it's just that his retarded emotions are more easily preyed upon.

Judy Upton's latest production, The Shorewatcher's House, details a similarly marooned set of relationships in rural England. This time it's by the sea, overlooking a nuclear reactor at which Conrad, to his wife Brigida's shame and fury, works as a security guard. Though Upton's writing is less neatly honed than Ward's, and despite Lisa Goldman's production bearing the unmistakable stamp of "fringe" about it, the play is rich with ideas.

Conrad and Brigida are locked into a destructive relationship with each other and with Nikolai, their childhood friend who has been, and still sometimes is, Brigida's lover. In the same way that they know that the nuclear fallout endangers their health yet lack the impetus to move away, they cannot break the chain of jealousy and need which binds the three of them together. Their relationship becomes a metaphor for passivity in the face of nuclear threat, and the play happily transcends the narcissistic characters that inhabit it.

Conforming to the current fin-de-siecle craze for violence and perversity, Upton relishes the portrayal of a relationship in which the woman is the main propagator of physical violence. As the crisis looms, only a figure representing the future can break the deadlock. Milenka, the hippy-child beachcomber, belongs to a generation that grew up expecting nuclear holocaust. "We didn't make plans for careers or relationships," she says. The explosion never came, and that generation feel cheated, left to drift aimlessly, protesting half-heartedly. But the sense of contamination lingers.

n Warehouse Theatre, Croydon (0181-680 4060); Red Room, London (0171- 813 9653)

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