Just a week after David Hare's latest play The Permanent Way - about the state of the railways - premiered in York on its London-bound national tour, so the West End now offers up a still shockingly pertinent revival of his 1988 'state of the nation' play that argues with a Shavian intensity against the kind of values that the then-ruling Conservative government brought to the fore.
But if this mostly compelling production proves nothing else, it also sadly shows that the play (and the times that it reflects) has lost little of its force now that we're into a second term of office for New Labour. Instead of being about the specifics of those in power then (and one of its leading characters is actually a holder of junior office in that government), it's a timely reminder of the universality of the human impulses of greed on the one hand and the price to be paid for idealism on the other that transcends mere party politics.
In the process, too, Guy Retallack's intelligently realised production tests the strengths, but also exposes some of the weaknesses, of a play that revolves around notions of good and evil and how, as Hare immodestly says in a programme note, he stumbled on a "this magnificent theme: that good people bring out the worst in all of us."
As two adult sisters convene at the bedside of their dead bookseller father, Marion (Belinda Lang) - a Junior government minister in the Department of the Environment -- is all pent-up aggression and defensiveness, while Isobel (Jenny Seagrove), a graphic designer, grieves more calmly. Soon, the long-term fissures in their relationship are exposed over their handling of their young, now widowed, stepmother Katherine (Liza Walker), a damaged waif of a thing who is quickly identified as an abusive alcoholic.
When the do-gooder Isobel lets Katherine into her life and gives her a job at her graphic design agency, a destructive force is unleashed, but Marion and her businessman husband Tom (Peter Egan) persuading Isobel and her partner Irwin (Simon Shepherd) to expand their business proves to be even more fatal.
It's a plot that not only supports a raft of ideas to be eloquently expounded, as in a play by George Bernard Shaw, but also creates a platform for several electrifying encounters between these contrasting characters that provide a gripping, compelling study in human behaviour, beautifully articulated in all of the performances. Only towards the end, when it tips the usually reliable Lang into a display of shrill, strident hysteria, does the play and the playing of it lose its grip. It also boxes Seagrove's character, Isobel, into such a tight corner that a melodramatic conclusion is the only possible outcome, and so it proves.
But Seagrove - who has never been better - appealingly conveys the pain behind the self-sacrifice, and Walker, following a performance as a similarly disruptive waif that she played in Patrick Marber's Closer with which she made an indelible mark a few years ago, is superb, too, at catching her character's vulnerability and manipulation.
- Mark Shenton