Tongue of a Bird Almeida, London
There's a wonderfully funny scene in the middle of Ellen McLaughlin's tremendous new play where Dessa and Maxine dream up a ridiculously mundane solution to the nightmare they are facing.

Dessa's kidnapped daughter Charlotte has been missing for two weeks in the snowy mountains, and Maxine, a pilot with a perfect record in finding lost people, is searching for her. In the cockpit of Maxine's beloved Cessna, they play down their fears and give way to hysterical laughter as they imagine the hideous embarrassment of having to explain that the authorities needn't have wasted thousands of dollars, because, oops, Charlotte was accidentally locked in the garden shed all along.

McLaughlin pinpoints humour in scenes that lesser playwrights would write as scenes of desperation. It's a question of perspective, something she is particularly well qualified to write about having played the Angel in the Broadway production of Angels in America. Spending hours on flying wires looking down on characters such as Peter Pan gives you an entirely different angle to write from.

One of the key strengths of the powerfully eloquent Tongue of a Bird is the clarity and drive of the storytelling. This allows McLaughlin's grander design to take wing. Maxine is not only searching for Charlotte. Troubled by her lack of early memories, reduced to a collection of 11 random photographs, she is also seeking to unravel her own lost childhood and the truth behind the suicide of Evie, her mother. Images of loss, fear and flight resonate in the air, but alongside an ironic sense of humour, the sheer buoyancy of the tightly structured and startlingly evocative language banishes any notion of overwritten, self-indulgent introspection. Scenes are pared down to the point of rich ambiguity. When the drinks machine dispenses coffee rather than hot chocolate and chooses the floor rather than a cup, you find yourself laughing in recognition before being caught up short as the scene spins into a picture of Maxine's pent-up frustration and pain.

McLaughlin's miraculously light touch is matched by the beautifully restrained precision of Peter Gill's production. The acting is excellent throughout, from Maxine's sage and seemingly imperturbable Polish grandmother, a role in which Miriam Karlin simply glows, to Melanie Hill's tough broad of a mother refusing to give up hope. Flying high above William Dudley's spare, bleached-out set, Deirdre Harrison's Evie uses her powerful presence to literally haunting effect. The challenge of playing Maxine, who is never off-stage, is to peel back the layers of doubt, denial and desperation and to build through the extraordinarily moving series of emotional climaxes. Never for a moment does Deborah Findlay descend into self-indulgence. The light and shade of her characterisation is masterly; her self-control heartbreaking.

At the play's opening we watch worlds turn as a child spins an illuminated globe. After the radiantly hopeful final image, the lights come up and you realise with a jolt that an entire world has been created by just five people. It's a testament to an outstanding realisation of a gifted writer's vision.

To 29 November, Almeida Street, London N1 (0171-359 4404)

David Benedict

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