Away from the celebratory flag-waving and vuvuzela-blowing of the World Cup, a much darker aspect of South African life is on show at the Arcola Theatre. Protean Productions’ British premiere of Athol Fugard’s Coming Home is a moving but unsentimental reminder of the severe problems of AIDS and poverty which beset the nation in the post-apartheid era.

This play is the sequel to Fugard’s 1996 work Valley Song, in which Veronica Yonkers leaves her simple life with her gardener grandfather Oupa in a Karoo desert village to try and make a career as a singer in Cape Town. As its title suggests, in Coming Home Veronica returns after several years away, though now her grandfather is dead and she has a young son.

As she tells her old school friend Alfred, her dreams have turned to a nightmare in the big city; struggling to cope with her baby by herself after his father was killed in a fight, she entered a downward spiral of drinking and casual sex, when she contracted AIDS. But despite worsening sickness Veronica has a plan to safeguard her son’s future.

Fugard, of course, made his international reputation as a playwright by showing the pernicious effects of apartheid, but since the 1990s he has turned to other contemporary issues confronting the ‘Rainbow Nation’. Coming Home demonstrates his characteristic humanity in showing the plight of a single mother who cannot afford to buy the drugs that will help her condition, as well as her resourceful bravery in looking after her son.

Though the play is a bit slow to get going, and the ending is rather predictable, the evolving relationships are depicted with a warm compassion that is engaging, while occasional moments of joyful singing and lively humour prevent it becoming oppressively gloomy. The vibrantly colloquial dialogue and richly metaphorical use of the changing seasons and planting time ground the work in an earthy optimism.

The sensitive staging by Cordelia Monsey (who also directed the British premiere of Fugard’s Victory for the Peter Hall Company in 2007) allows the drama to grow organically, while Victoria Johnstone’s design of a humble, run-down one-room abode given a homely makeover sets the scene nicely in the intimate Studio 2.

Cat Simmons is an affecting, determined Veronica, who, despite setbacks and increasing weakness, never gives up hope. David Judge also gives a likeable performance as the none-too-clever but big-hearted Alfred, who develops adult responsibility. As the ghostly presence of Oupa, Nadim Sawalha sprouts home-grown wisdom with much tenderness. And as the bright younger and older Mannetjie, Panashe and Taanashe Mwatsiya show a storyteller in the making.

- Neil Dowden