Two women are meeting in a kitchen. It looks chilly; they're wearing coats and scarves. One lights the stove, pours out the wine. The other, clearly uncomfortable, chain-smokes and keeps making moves to leave. No, says the first, you can't go yet. Liz hasn't arrived.
Cooper has a track record of plays that have investigated the hidden bits of women's lives who have been otherwise ignored, viz Mrs Gauguin and Mrs Vershinin. Cooper's Three Women and a Piano Tuner doesn't so much investigate as leave uncomfortable question marks hanging in the air for women today. What price childbearing - and on the other side, abortion, the cutting out of a life? What price women's artistic creativity? And how selective is memory? How do we remember the past? Do we idealise it, deny it or just blot it out?
Set also within the context of three sisters' sibling rivalries, a musical composition that has taken ten years to come to fruition, and a father-figure whose malign - or as one sister, Ella would have it, sensitive - legacy lives on in the shape of her beautiful young piano tuner (Gareth David-Lloyd), the cocktail might at first seem over-loaded.
And sure, Cooper is guilty of stretching our suspension of disbelief beyond some natural boundaries. We are, after all, talking abuse here - not a subject to be taken lightly (though that is exactly what Alan Bennett did recently in The History Boys). The image of the stork (a symbol of female silence as well as fertility) is often oblique and the nature of Ella's artistic endeavour, a concerto on a vast scale, frankly incredible.
For all that, it would be a sad heart that could not be moved by Cooper's haunting, ambitious vision - at once diffuse, pungent, brutal - in Sam West's exquisitely nuanced production that, like the indispensable pump itself, seems to positively breath. Jane Gurnett (Ella), Suzanne Burden (Beth) and Eleanor David (Liz), too, make a perfect blending - Gurnett, a cunning mixture of the practical and idealistic, Burden, all harrowed disappointment and David, artistic carnality personnified.
New work is currently an endangered species in the West End. Chichester have taken a gamble with Three Women and a Piano Tuner. Their faith is wholly justified.
- Carole Woddis