For the past century, Dublin's Abbey Theatre has played host to Ireland's premier dramatists from O' Casey and Yeats to Behan and Friel. Bernard Farrell, author of Happy Birthday, Dear Alice, has had no less than eight of his plays performed there. Yet he's woefully unknown this side of the Irish Sea.

Like many of his distinguished predecessors, his plays have a political context and are characterised by comic treatments of serious social issues with strong entertainment value at their core. Among the most popular in Irish theatre, they expose the foibles and pretensions of people struggling to keep up with the demands of an emerging new Ireland.

This delightful offering - by the intimate Orange Tree Theatre as a co-production with the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough - is no exception. Set in rural Ireland, it explores the dilemma faced by ageing widow Alice as she tries to meet the demands of her selfish children, who want to put the reluctant Alice into a nursing home, superficially to assuage their own guilt, but also (it is implied) to inherit her large house.

With the passing of each birthday - when the family reunite - the pressure becomes more intense and wily Alice is forced into ever more desperate and preposterous measures to avert the critical decision. Interrelated is the gently blossoming relationship with modest Jimmy, her late husband's former partner, juxtaposing her stressful present with her joyous past in well-constructed flashbacks.

In Sam Walter's exceptionally directed production, each of the five characters is defined with razor-edge sharpness - from the pushy and neurotic daughter Barbara (played with ferocious realism by the wonderful Teresa McElroy) to self-deceiving son Barry (John Paul Connolly) and his simple but good-hearted girlfriend Sandy (performed beautifully by Roisin Rae with a scream that would terrify Fay Wray).

As Jimmy, Barry McCarthy turns in a particularly admirable performance, attempting to cope with a failing deaf aid and his remorse at having failed to save Alice's husband, many years previously, from being gored to death by a bull. As Barbara's put-upon husband, an Americanised wanna-be CNN news reporter, Paul Boyle also hits the mark.

At the centre of the drama, though, is Alice - thoughtful, loving and always one step ahead of her conniving brood. With its absence of bombast or broad comedy, it's the least showy part, yet Caroline John imbues it with an intensity of delicacy and gentleness that is truly touching. She is the very antithesis of the Hollywood matriarch.

This is an outstanding ensemble piece and I, for one, would like to see much more of both the actors and the playwright. A very Irish, warm, funny and thoughtful evening.

- Stephen Gilchrist (reviewed at Richmond's Orange Tree Theatre)