Oxford Theatre Guild return to the North Wall for the fourth Autumn running, this year with Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, directed by Polly Mountain.

The themes of the play are sanity and madness, long-term relationships and family discord. Not unsurprisingly, this is not a frothy, light-hearted comedy whose ambition is to entertain, but a more didactic essay on the psychodynamic elements that run throughout a dysfunctional family. Although the description of the play makes reference to the comedic elements, these are few and far between - and when laughs come, they often do so with painful reference to the characters' life experiences.

A Delicate Balance is a challenging play to produce. A cast of six - mostly-unlikeable - characters bicker, drink and behave in a frankly ludicrous and unbelievable manner. The dialogue is stilted and unnatural, and where the writer should merely allude to the absurd, he has chosen to reference it directly. For me this undermines the central conceit of the piece: Two unwanted and unloved old friends Edna (Angela Myers) and Harry (Colin Macnee) turn up at the door in a state of fear - but for the characters to refer directly to the unnamed horror is a fundamental mistakeand fatally weakens Albee's ambitions. Given the awkwardness and dated pre-occupations of the play, Polly Mountain's direction is competent, but lines that should flash in the dark, often fall too flat.

The most likeable character in this play is Claire - the alcoholic sister and perennial houseguest - played with great panache by Lisa Barnett. Barnett drives the emotional pace of the play with real feeling and is to be congratulated for portraying a flawed character with such humour and humanity. Nick Quartley as the failed patriach, Tobias, delivers a believably bewildered man, skewered between the rapier barbs of his wife, Agnes (Mary Stuck) and his petulant daughter, Julia (Esther Edlundh-Rose). Myers and Macnee do their very best to bring some depth to their shallow and peculiar characters, but it can't have been easy.

The staging is very well suited to the North Wall's tricky arrangement, and Dominic Hargreaves - making his debut as lighting designer for the Guild - has lit the set is well with believeable effects and lighting progression as the story progresses from evening to morning.

Ian Greer