Unlucky for Some

Southwark Playhouse, London

Overweight, over 40 and over the hill, Rachel tries to cheer herself up by dancing to "Pretty Woman", lost in a reverie of her lovely former self. "When the going gets tough, the tough get pissed," she moans of her slothful husband, who, after 30 years, pays her scant attention. Nobby, meanwhile, 54 and still a virgin, is in a state of distress, sitting in the loo writing to God on behalf of his aged, ailing mother. "Nuttall Mintoes. She likes something to suck on while she's listening to the world news."

We could be in Alan Bennett territory here, but for the milieu. The characters in Paul Tucker's tough but tender are the dispossessed, leading lives of quiet, tragicomic desperation in run-down council flats. Rachel is worried about her neighbour. "He could be a rapist," she wonders. In fact, she's close and wide of the mark. Tom (Jay Worthy) is forcing himself on something, but it's an inflatable sex doll. Elsewhere on the estate, sexual activities are more dangerous.

By the interval you think you are watching a set of short stories in search of a narrative but Tucker slyly links the isolated lives both literally and thematically. Everyone is dreaming of escape, and their passport to a better life is via the bingo hall. "This council flat will be the Las Vegas of the estate," cries Nobby, pinning his hopes on the game for which he is the (inept) caller. "Seven and five: naughty but nice..."

Even the violent ex-army thug who is after "a shag now and a kebab later" is fully rounded. "We're all lonely," says the single mother whom he pays for sex. "I could make you un-lonely," he replies, illustrating Tucker's strongest suit, which is his compassion. That's what lifts what could have been an unleavened litany of despondency into a genuinely touching group portrait. It would be all too easy to paint these characters in angry, unrelenting strokes, drenched in misery, but Tucker finds comedy in the most unlikely corners. His palette has an expected range of poetic colours and his empathy is startling, most obviously in the scenes between Nobby and his wheelchair-bound mother, and those depicting Tom's fantasy relationship.

The latter is dangerous stuff, the kind of situation that exposes writers at their judgemental worst. Tucker, however, triumphantly avoids the pitfalls and develops the idea to the point whereby we are powerfully moved by Tom's distress as self-realisation smothers his fantasy.

The sensitive acting and production achieve a balance poised between hope and despair, and Timothy Hughes's controlled, unpatronising direction only really falters with the musical sequences, which are slightly over- extended. Elsewhere, his sure touch matches the tone of the writing. Like the novelist Shena Mackay, Tucker observes mundane lives and uses a surprising poetry to reawaken them. Beneath a seemingly drab surface, he marries the beautiful and the grotesque, the sad and the comic.

To 6 Dec. Booking: 0171-620 3494