Centre stage, a television set was snowing helplessly. "Must be Channel 5," quipped a wag in the audience as we took our seats. And that was the high point of the evening. Imported as the second leg of the Donmar Warehouse "Four Corners" season, Northern Stage Company's production of Tell Me by Matthew Dunster, has nothing to declare but its own furious, stylised futility. A preternaturally dysfunctional family, caricature of a depressive wife, a misogynist husband who spouts jokes Chubby Brown himself might balk at, and a hectoring religious-maniac son who ceaselessly recites Revelations, go off their heads round a second chronically-disabled son who spasms on a sofa, while the TV set shows footage of the beautiful mobile being he might have been.
The spirit of the show has a nasty edge to it. It's as though A Day In The Death of Joe Egg had been re-written from a nihilistic viewpoint without the despairing wit, humanity and moral authority that Peter Nicholls had gained from personal experience. Full of arty rewinds and whooshing auditory equivalents of the whip-pan, it feels like a synthetic nervous breakdown rather than a responsibly experimental piece of theatre. When the roof starts to leak and water gushes down on the disabled youth as he has a thrashing fit, there's such a triumphant complacency of desolation in this contrived image, you'd need to have a heart of stone not to snort with laughter.
Also heavily stylised in a way that often heightens its humanity is the show that now replaces Tell Me in the Four Corners season. When David Greig's Timeless was premiered at last year's Edinburgh Festival in a co-production with Tramway, most critics, myself included, raised two- and-a-quarter cheers. The complaint was that manner threatened to overwhelm matter, given such obtrusive devices as an on-stage string quartet which strains with bitter-sweet intensity or jokily drowns out dialogue, lots of ritualised miming of social flinches and tics, a fugue-like build-up of catch-phrases and key words and cubist-angled grouping of bodies.
Watching Timeless a second time, I find I'm much more straightforwardly moved by the tension the piece generates between the colloquial, comically- observed outer world of this quartet of Scots 20-30-somethings (all defensive professional insecurity and swerving sexual attraction) and the anxious lyric rapture of their inner lives. Moving backwards and forwards in time - full of anticipation and regret, and, more importantly, the anticipation of regret - the piece is obsessed by a moment of timeless joy and togetherness the foursome once shared watching the dawn come up on a beach near a power station. Virginia Woolf meets John Byrne. As performed by an admirable cast (Keith Macpherson, Paul Thomas Hickey, Molly Innes and Kate Dickie), the alternations between affected social casualness and surreally-disclosed private vulnerability are tremendously sympathetic without being sentimental, except perhaps in a final song which sounds like a dud copy of one of the Elvis Costello/Brodsky quartet Juliet Letters.
You may still feel that there's too much of the technical exercise about Timeless, but unlike Tell Me, it has a fully-functioning heart.