Theatre: Feud for thought as Hare gets personal

'Amy's View' proves there are still great parts for women as Judi Dench and Samantha Bond provide the best double act in town
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It was Tony Blair, as recorded by Colemanballs in the current Private Eye, who coined the handy concept of "the single most important two things". It could catch on. The single most important two things, for instance, about David Hare's new play, Amy's View, which premiered last week at the National, are Dame Judi Dench and Samantha Bond. Between them they provide the most riveting relationship between two women currently portrayed on the British stage. They go some way to countering the habitual complaint made by Dench's character, a middle-aged actress, that "there are no parts for women".

Dench plays Esme Allen, whose painter husband is deceased, and who commutes back each night from a West End show to her house near Pangbourne, Berks. Hare's play opens in 1979, when Dench's daughter Amy (Bond) comes home with her new boyfriend, Dominic (Eoin McCarthy), a gossip columnist and film critic. Over four acts, and across 18 years, we follow the upsets and recriminations between mother and daughter, largely precipitated by the arrival of McCarthy whom Dench dislikes, and who is here (in one way or another) to stay. The ambitious young critic stands little chance, in Hare's hands, against the tidal scorn of a West End actress.

Dench is on superb form as a brisk, bustling figure - at once both no- nonsense and histrionic - who shoots disdainful glances, impatiently flicks away ash, or girlishly curls up in the armchair. The constant flow of external details rise up from an awesomely alive emotional core. Whether intuitively grasping what's happening in her daughter's life, or, later, physically struggling with her to gain some affection, the forceful precision of her wayward feelings flood the Lyttelton. Bond gives a far more tidy, contained, patient performance that is, in its own way, as exacting and moving. These two, under Richard Eyre's expert direction, find an unrivalled intimacy, a sense of knowing each other for decades. Hare's gift for emotional sparring couldn't be better served.

Although Amy's View doesn't have the cumulative structural impact of Skylight (which returns to the West End this month), in one respect the Dench/Bond relationship parallels that of the restaurateur and teacher: Dench is the performer, Bond the spectator. The play reaches a blistering Act Three climax - in an exchange of speechless, clumsy fury - after Bond has torn into Dench, claiming she never saw what was good about her husband. (We never get to see what is good about him either.) The temperature then drops, as we move from the living room to backstage at a West End theatre. There are two reasons. The random cruelty of life becomes a major plot point. And the denouement takes place between son-in-law and mother- in-law rather than mother and daughter. If he had achieved a stronger grasp on the numerous topical themes that enliven Amy's View it could rank among Hare's best.

Watching it puts you in two minds: pleasure at the stylish vigour with which Hare attacks the slippery contemporary values, and unease at the speed with which people declare their points of view. A very English playwright, Hare is also embarrassingly un-English, imbuing his characters with transatlantic candour. Within minutes of the play's opening we know about Dominic's relationship with his parents ("They're strangers"), his job on a diary ("Writing is power"), his interest in dominant symbols in films ("Signifiers") and his lack of interest in theatre ("Doesn't seem relevant"). You couldn't learn about his life and views any faster if Sir Jeremy Isaacs interviewed him on Face to Face.

Amy's View takes its title, literally, from a newsletter Amy produced as a child, and then, by extension, Amy's philosophy that love must be given unconditionally. If this funny, provocative and absorbing play lacked sharp focus, it is because emotional - even spiritual - themes fit less easily into the give and take of analytical debate than political issues. So Amy's View, which articulates more than it dramatises, left me unsure what was being said.

It's incongruous seeing a West End play like Blithe Spirit on Chichester's thrust stage. Opened out, the action seems far off, as if the dinner party at Mr and Mrs Condomine's is taking place on a vessel moored alongside the auditorium. Coward wrote the scenes with a curtain in mind. Anyone in doubt should see the moment when Elvira, the first wife who has returned as a ghost (well-played by a sullenly evanescent Twiggy Lawson), smashes a vase on the ground. Lights dim. Twiggy exits and half a dozen blackshirts run on with dustpans and brushes and grub around the cream carpet. Stagehands shouldn't act in a more dramatic fashion than stars.

At least Tim Goodchild's curvilinear settings look more securely in period than the performances. There are tiny details in director Tim Luscombe's resolutely flat production - such as Dr Bradman pushing his way into the drawing room ahead of his wife - that suggest a certain doziness in the rehearsal room. Steven Pacey plays the novelist not as an established figure under stress but as second cousin to Bertie Wooster. The wooden stances, toothpaste smiles and pained tones come over as unfortuate vestiges of "what-ho" acting. The elegant Belinda Lang has angular, thoroughbred looks and a tight strangulated tone, as if resisting the temptation to deliver the role through her nostrils. In the middle of all this Dora Bryan turns in an exhausting one-woman show as the spiritualist, Madame Arcati. Her arms swing back and forth. Her shoulders rise and fall. Her fingers flutter. Her eyelids flap up and down. Batty charm has rarely worked so hard. Nor in Chichester so successfully. The audience, who clearly relish a mugging when it's done from a safe distance, refused to let Bryan exit without bursts of applause. Coward wrote Blithe Spirit over six days when holidaying in Portmeirion. Watching this dull revival I felt I was with him for most of the way.

Chekhov also wrote the The Wood Demon in a week, two years after Ivanov. Last week it made it to the West End. The reason for the delay is that seven years later Chekhov did a complete rewrite and retitled it Uncle Vanya. Anthony Clark's direction lacks the intricate ensemble hubbub needed to animate the big scenes. (While some characters look as if they have only recently become acquainted with their beards and moustaches.) But there are good, intelligent perfor- mances from Brian Protheroe, John Turner, Philip Voss and Abigail Cruttenden, among others. The Wood Demon isn't just for those wanting to play spot-the-difference with its successor.

'Amy's View': Lyttelton, SE1 (0171 928 2252). 'Blithe Spirit': Chichester Festival Theatre (01243 781312). 'The Wood Demon': Playhouse, WC2 (0171 839 4401).