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Theatre: We're on the road to nowhere

"A COUNTRY road. A tree," is all the setting Samuel Beckett specifies for Waiting for Godot. One of the many recurring sets of two in the play, they indicate the opposites of movement and stasis, the first of human devising, the second a natural phenomenon.

In what Estragon would recognise as a little "canter", the philosopher Daniel Dennett fantasises that trees might once have been like us - that is, sentient, deliberating beings on the road to understanding - but that they recognised the futility of thought and "had to take root and "vegetate". "What is terrible," says Vladimir, "is to have thought", and we have already heard a desperate parody of human thinking, garbling together the profound and the banal, when the mute, passive slave Lucky is ordered to "think!" by his master Pozzo. Godot is supposed to arrive along that country road to deliver the tramps not only from sore feet and prostate problems, but from thought as well, but he only ever sends word that his coming must be deferred to tomorrow and tomorrow.

But the triumph of the play is to show that, however painful, tedious and constrained their lives, conscious existence is better than the unconscious self-sufficiency of the tree.

Thus the success of a production will depend on how dangerously it can trade in tedium, the "blathering about nothing in particular", and yet show the fascination of living even in this inconsequential microcosm. The opposite temptations must be to try to overpower the audience with philosophical profundity, or to play up the work's deliberate Laurel and Hardy comedy.

Happily, Matthew Lloyd's new production falls for neither of these. Beckett said that he switched to composing in French so as to write "without style", meaning presumably that nothing should be flourished for its own self- evident effect. I had immediate doubts about the Coca-Cola T-shirt worn by Richard Wilson's Vladimir, and in fact he and his partner are too showily attired as slapstick down-and-outs.

But Wilson exactly disciplines his capacity for idiosyncrasy so as to ensure that so many lines that could be sounded for deep significance are pitched to stay securely within the level of dialogue without being flattened, and none of the comedy is merely ingratiating. His occasional extravagance of voice and gesture fits Vladimir's greater restlessness and never dominates the doughy dolefulness of Brian Pettifer's subtle and moving Estragon. James Duke's Lucky delivers his single peroration as just teetering into sense, and is unsettlingly brave enough to face us with the repulsiveness of the victim. Only Nicky Henson as Pozzo momentarily allows a portentous note into his last speech, but he is otherwise entirely formidable.

The one message Vladimir sends back to Mr Godot in both his touch encounters with the Boy is "tell him you saw me". Richard Wilson says it falteringly, as from a pit of anxiety that he might go unnoticed - might not even exist. We have seen him, and all of them, on their road getting nowhere and, unlike the tree and Godot, distinctly human.

Jeffrey Wainwright

To 26 June. Box office: 0161-833 9833