Theatre: The Journey of Mary Kelly; Afore Night Come Theatr Clwyd, Mold
"I saw myself inside out," says Mary in Sian Evans's new play, The Journey of Mary Kelly. It is a dreadful premonition because she is to become Jack the Ripper's last victim. But the line might be taken to suggest the theme connecting this play with David Rudkin's 1962 classic Afore Night Come.

The powerful controlling images of both are dismemberment and evisceration, and both seek to turn England inside out to reveal the pulsing turmoil beneath the shirt-front of cherished civility. Rudkin's vision is the more mythic. The orchard of his setting is indeed very much heart-of-England in its associations, and the documentary details in such things as the fruit buckets and crates insist on this. But it is also bound to hint at Eden, and the atavism of the appalling ritual of victim sacrifice that climaxes the piece challenges sociological understanding just as the work's symbolism contends with the social realism.

Getting this balance right is surely the great difficulty, and it is one that director Dominic Cooke - with his designer Georgia Sion and roseate lighting by Johanna Town that darkens alarmingly into ominous shadow - manages excellently. This is middle England, apparently jocund, but seen in the flare of a Faulknerian vision as an isolated, fearful place where the one representative of "outside" civilisation, the student Larry, is an uncomprehending bystander. It is fearful of anything "other", and Larry looks immediately vulnerable until the arrival of Roche, an Irish tramp and self-styled poet who could "show youse wonders".

The decisive thing about Roche is that he is not the "Shakespeare" the other fruit-pickers instantly dub him: not our hero, and their victim, because he is an unrecognised visionary. He is as irritating and unlikeable as he is charismatic, and this is caught exactly in a simply magnificent performance by Frank Grimes. His carriage and garb of dark glasses and tea-towel head-dress show us the arrogance of eccentricity, a flaunting of the role of holy fool, yet his tongue can be silvery as in his mad but magical disquisition upon tempests and sinuses. Our horror is mixed with shame as our impatience with him makes us feel shudderingly complicit with his murderers.

Mary Kelly, by contrast, is a very specifically female victim. A Welsh- Irish servant girl who comes to London and is welcomed into bohemia by the painter Sickert and his circle - "freedom to paint and to fornicate" - she spirals downwards to meet her fate after Sickert rejects her and their child. Sian Evans is concerned to show the interrelationship of the marks men make of and upon wamen's bodies. At one with the lover's imposition are the artist's charcoal and, in the contemporary medicalisation of women's "complaints", the surgeon's knife. The Ripper is seen as the logical extension of this fervent, vengeful desire.

Evans's impressively ambitious play moves urgently both in time and social space but, though its progress is fleet-footed in Terry Hands's direction, it remains schematic in the development of its many and forceful ideas. Sickert (Alun Raglan) is eventually remorseful but how has this significant complication of his symbolic role occurred? Mary herself is, however, a character of Vesuvian vigour, powerfully played by Rachel Sanders. She will settle for none of the compromises on offer in this male world, neither compliant mistress nor, like Christina (illuminatingly played by Elaine Claxton), imitation manhood. "You'll regret having no fear," says Joe, her last "protector". She doesn't, but she pays the price.

Demanding work, but these new partners in Terry Hands's fine first season present a discovery and a rediscovery - exactly what repertory theatre is for.

In repertory. Booking: 01352 755114

Jeffrey Wainwright