Aunt Dan and Lemon at the Almeida Theatre

“Hello, dear audience,” begins Lemon (Glenne Headly), the despondent young female narrator of Wallace Shawn s 1985 play Aunt Dan and Lemon. “If everyone were just like you,” she continues, “perhaps the world would be nice again.” But as she addresses us, Lemon s shoulders are slumped, her eyes blank and saucer-shaped, her voice even and emotionless. It s clear that she doesn t think us very nice at all - but then she hasn t had much in the way of role models for comparison.

Lemon maintains that the measure of one s life is not what they ve done but who they ve known, both directly and indirectly. She rewinds through the years to give glimpses of the people (all of whom died inexplicably young) who ve moulded her life - her well-meaning mother, her stressed workaholic father and most importantly, her ‘Aunt Dan (Miranda Richardson), an American friend of the family.

It s her childhood relationship with Aunt Dan that makes Lemon conclude she s had a great life. For although Lemon s own existence is a reclusive, eventless and, ultimately, heavily sedated one, through the dubious influence of Aunt Dan she discovers a shadowy London underworld populated by the likes of orgy ringmaster Andy (Corey Johnson) and Mindy (Amira Casar), the prostitute turned murderer and occasional lesbian.

It s also through Aunt Dan that Lemon learns an odd lesson about the worth, or worthlessness, of human life. Sure, goes Aunt Dan s/ Lemon s disturbed reasoning, murder can be unpleasant but it can also be necessary and even enjoyable. It s the people who make the difficult decisions about who lives and who dies who demonstrate real courage, who make it possible for the rest of us to sit and judge in ignorant bliss. Thus, Aunt Dan s fanatical obsession with Henry Kissinger - and his willingness to bomb Vietnamese peasants without shedding a tear - and Lemon s admiration for Nazi extermination procedures. (Nato spin doctors could make good use of some of these arguments.)

Tom Cairns direction sets the right tone of almost surreal spookiness, incorporating generous use of home movies and popular tunes that seem sinister in the context. Cairns layered set, designed with Robin Rawstone, is especially effective with its screens of gauze only just - and not always - separating Lemon s present from her past.

In terms of performances, Headly is wonderful as Lemon, delivering her soliloquies with a dispassion so cool it frequently provokes shivers. Richardson on the other hand seems somewhat miscast; she can do screw-loose no problem but brash, blonde American doesn t really suit her.

You won t leave Aunt Dan and Lemon feeling very nice. Shawn as a playwright doesn t let you off so easily, offering more engagement than entertainment. But, though you may not enjoy the evening, it will certainly get you thinking.

Terri Paddock