Tie me up, tie me down

THEATRE: The Positive Hour; Hampstead Theatre, London

Female mid-life crises seem to be the flavour of the week on the London stage. First there was Women on the Verge of HRT and its comic anger at the biological inequality that enables men to waltz off and start new families with women half their age. Now there's April de Angelis's altogether funnier, sharper and more surprising play, The Positive Hour, deftly directed by Max Stafford-Clark at Hampstead.

At its centre, is Miranda (Margot Leicester), a social worker with her fair share of problems. On the professional front, these include her relationship with Paula (Julia Lane), an unemployed single mother whose hopes of regaining custody of her child aren't helped by the fact that she has a boyfriend who beats her and that, to make ends meet, she occasionally resorts to prostitution. On the home front, there's Roger (Robin Soans), Miranda's spouse, who is constitutionally incapable of finishing his long-projected book on Hegel.

All the same, Miranda's life appears to be running to schedule and in smooth conformity with the radical feminist principles of her youth. Quite unlike the derailed existence of her best friend Emma (Patti Love). Ditched by a partner who has switched from radicalism to restaurant-owning, she is coming to terms with the fact that she is a 46-year-old failed artist for whom feminism now looks like having been a dreadful mistake: "Abandon the life of your mothers. Well, I did and now I've got nothing. No career, no husband, no child."

The play shows how Emma derives a certain consolation when she farcically finds herself in an S&M relationship with a hilariously mild-mannered and civilised-sounding rubber fetishist. It also shows how she destructively turns on Miranda and her dogmatic theories about the right way to be.

Is feminism finished? Who decides what is and isn't disgusting, sexually? Ms De Angelis tackles these and other questions with a wit that can often catch you off guard. Only minutes after Miranda has told her husband that the extent of his feminism is that he's done a bit of washing-up, refrained from using the word "cunt", and read The Bell Jar, you notice no-nonsense Paula quite cheerfully using the c-word to describe the manager of the store where she works. There's a generational chasm, not just a class divide between her kind of woman and Miranda's. As for the beatings from the boyfriend, Paula reveals that she sometimes asks him to hit her. Pain "on the outside", as she puts it, is preferable to the inchoate pain she feels within, living her hopeless life.

The do-gooder who doesn't really know those on whom the "good" is being inflicted might seem an easy target and I wasn't sure about the last-minute revelation that suddenly puts Miranda's obstinate clinging to old certainties in a more sympathetic light. What is beyond doubt, though, is the excellence of the acting (with Kate Ashfield all blinking bespectacled idealism, quite outstanding as a devoted member of Miranda's women's group) and the continuing unexpectedness of the script's humour. Take the moment when Emma talks of being deserted: "It's so degrading. I could kill Alan. He only had to stick around another 20 years and then he would have died. A small favour to ask of anyone."

To 29 March. Booking: 0171-722 9301

Paul Taylor

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