Theatre: What really matters

IN FLAME

THE BUSH, LONDON

THE PIeCE de resistance of Charlotte Jones's compellingly quirky new play is a tap-shoe shuffle to "I Could Have Danced all Night", performed by Annie, an elderly stroke-victim with Alzheimer's. If it seemed even momentarily exploitative, the effect would be disastrous. But Annie's moment of glory is so little out of step with the batty behaviour of the other characters, that it feels both daft and touching.

In Flame confirms what Jones's first play, AirSwimming, suggested: this 30-year-old playwright - a former actress - has a peculiar talent for a dramatic locale where the pitiful and the prattish converge. It's a talent well served by Anna Mackmin's superbly paced and acted production.

Staged in a white, minimalist interior, it juxtaposes two sets of lives from opposite ends of the century and country - Thackley, Yorkshire in 1909 and London, 1999. Given the arrangement of the narrative, this might seem a dangerously schematic interpretation, but the underlying interest in the frustrated hopes of successive generations of women is strikingly inconclusive, carefully reluctant to frame things in terms of progress.

Scenes are fleeting, like the snapshots taken at Thackley Fair in the play's pivotal scene. For the women photographed, these are recorded moments of doomed happiness - Livvy and her "idiot" sister, Clara, both seduced by the roguish photographer, Frank, whose fake Italian accent spuriously promises broader horizons than those of their hard-bitten, disapproving Gramma. For Alex, a cartographer in her mid-thirties weighed down by her relationships with her mother Annie, whom she has placed in care, her moany flatmate Clootie, and Mat - a married man - the yellowing family prints she's discovered provide a vaguely consoling source of identification.

Most of the roles are doubled up with the cast swiftly and deftly negotiating between the two eras, with Jones' clipped dialogue amusingly expressive of brittle, "making do" mentalities and seething jealousies. This is most perfectly realised in Rosie Cavaliero's combined tour de force as the skirt-tugging, oafishly-grinning Clara - and the hapless neurotic, Clootie.

Jones gives some of the lewdest one-liners to Marcia Warren's bilious Gramma/Annie. "Tuesday's child is full of shit," the latter snaps when Alex pays a visit. She is as subtly outspoken as Gramma, sniping at the hypochondriac dullard (Tom Smith: excellent) who has set his cap at Livvie.

The cruelties can, at times, seem contrived for our delight - just as some of the incidental speeches and plot points can seem interposed simply to give the actors more to chew on. But other moments have lasting poignancy.

When at the end, the worlds merge and a gentle Gramma whispers to a sobbing, defeated Alex, "None of it matters", the words have an extraordinary effect: a semi- serious dismissal that fully acknowledges the seriousness of life and suggests that, finally, a sense of the ridiculous is our only weapon.

To 6 Feb (0181-743 3388)

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