Families are, well, familiar. Often overly so. Stephanie Jacob's staged sitcom – at once intricate and clumsy – shows the way we revert to old patterns of behaviour with our nearest and dearest. Set at a Sunday lunch at an old family home, it shows the family unit as something fixed – and, at the same time, unfixable.
Louise has gathered her brood back together for the first time in ages: her dishevelled ex Tom and their two twentysomething kids, straight-laced Adam and free-spirited Izzy. It's an occasion for old jokes and shared memories, but also old wounds and recriminations. While the kids revert to their younger, stroppier selves – Adam, unhelpful with his head in his book; Izzy, attention-seeking at every turn – mum and dad play parents like nothing has changed. Beneath the surface, however, their split has left cracks that can't be ignored.
It's a play that makes its point with its form – sometimes fruitfully, sometimes not. Jacob's writing glitches back on itself – a bit like Nick Payne's Constellations or Caryl Churchill's Blue Heart. Each time things sour or come to a head, Again rewinds and starts over, giving the group a second shot to make good. It's family time as a computer game – lose a life/start a fight, try again/take more care – but it means nothing much matters. Every wrong turn is swiftly undone. Adam repeatedly grabs his coat and storms out, Izzy's prone to burst into tears and Dad's always there with a handkerchief. Point made, drama depleted.
Jacob's driving idea is that families – like Louise's well-tended garden or Tom's lovingly varnished kitchen table – take care and cultivation if they're to work and she writes the rhythms of domesticity rather well. Hannah Price's production thrums with a sense of shared history, petty squabbles and, deep down, damage done and undusted. Natasha Little's outstanding as a mother keeping her cool, and Chris Larkin finds a sympathetic side to a difficult dad. As Izzy, Rosie Day brings a bright-eyed vitality and a livewire spark that lifts proceedings again and again.
Again has its layers. It abounds with echoes and repetitions – everything from a divorced couple rekindling their romance to Tom's second wife and kids across town. In linking Izzy and Adam's personality traits back to their parents, Jacob suggests that we're all vague facsimiles of the generation above – potentially even destined to repeat their mistakes. Like his mother, Adam tends to get stuck on repeat, safety lock always on, while Izzy's sexual proclivity, already au fait with infidelity, implies that she is truly her father's daughter.
But if it's brisk and chipper, comfortable comedy, Jacob's play is also fatally self-contained. If it looked beyond the domestic sphere, relating these repetitive, destructive patterns to the wider world, it would be five times the play. We are, as a species, trapped in vicious cycles – politically, economically and environmentally – but without that weight, Again feels quite slight. Diverting enough, but just too familiar.
Again runs at the Trafalgar Studios until 3 March.