'What the Plague throws into relief about class-division and the nature of human intimacy comes under a scrutiny both sensitive and beadily comic'

Theatre One Flea Spare The Bush, London
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The Independent Culture
The abiding problem for the stage dramatist - how to get people on and off plausibly - is mightily reduced in situations where the characters' own freedom of choice in these matters is minimal. Hence the convenience of hostage/prison dramas (Someone To Watch Over Me, etc) and the people- stuck-in-a-lift scenario. With One Flea Spare, premiered now in Dominic Dromgoole's beautifully judged and acted production at the Bush, Naomi Wallace offers an arresting (so to speak) variation on the formula.

The play is set during the Great Plague of 1665 in one of the two functioning rooms in the fine but now stripped and boarded-up house of prosperous, elderly Mr and Mrs Snelgrave (Robert Langdon Lloyd and Sheila Reid). A Northumbrian sailor (Jason Watkins) and a girl of 12 (Tamara King) steal into these premises, seeking refuge, a move which condemns all four of them to 28 days of obligatory quarantine. "Just in time to get snug," jeers the hefty, shaven-headed guard, Kabe (Peter Geeve), relishing the temporary power-reversal his new position betokens.

We hear, much later, that the young girl's mother, a maid, had been instantly consigned to the root-cellar without food or water once she began to show symptoms. To cling to some wisp of familial contact, the pair of them had had to sleep with their mouths to a crack in the door so they could feel each other's breath. What the Plague throws into relief about class- division and the nature of (and constraints on) human intimacy comes under a scrutiny both poetically sensitive and beadily comic in a play which makes reluctant rooming-mates of gentry and underdog.

My heart sank for a moment when it first became clear that snooty Snelgrave hadn't touched his wife since she was 17 and sustained major burns in a stable-fire. This was tantamount, it seemed, to draping a placard proclaiming "IN URGENT NEED OF A MELLORS FIGURE" round the unfortunate Mrs Snelgrave's neck.

To reveal that the husband winds up tied to a chair while his wife has her body checked for sensitive patches by the sailor (whose hand eventually lands on a very responsive area) might also give the misleading impression of a subtlety-free evening. The relationship between tar and toff comes across with an extraordinary, convincing delicacy. This is established partly by its contrast to the husband's crude, comically prurient interest in the sailor's sex life. And partly because the Plague, with its desensitising spectacle of heaped mass graves and its atmosphere of mutual distrust, provides a movingly paradoxical backdrop to the corporeal (and human) reawakening of Sheila Reid's repressed, admirably unridiculous Mrs Snelgrave.

The play is studded with spot-on, suggestive images, whether in the dialogue ("like cakes, her dresses were," says the girl of her master's younger daughter) or in the action (as when the sailor, in response to an insulting question about how it was with the wife, trickles a subversively sensual mouthful of water over the mouth and face of the bound, appalled Snelgrave). A fine advance on In the Heart of America, her previous play, One Flea Spare whets the appetite for Wallace's debut, in January, with the RSC.

n To 18 Nov. Booking: 0181 743 3388