NOTE: The following review dates from September 2003 and an earlier tour stop for this production.

Max Stafford-Clark's company, Out of Joint, assaults the senses with Duck, an accomplished first play from Stella Feehily. The production features nudity, swearing and gritty performances. Luckily, this brave venture wins the audience round completely and is proof that there's room for a variety of productions at regional theatres.

Cat (Ruth Negga) is an enigmatic young girl who attracts trouble despite herself. Her boyfriend Mark (Karl Shiels) treats her like a doormat. Her middle-aged lover (Tony Rohr) has a girlfriend on the side. And her best friend Sophie (Elaine Symons) longs for her to give up her job as a night club hostess and make a fresh start.

Cat is young and needs to learn from her mistakes, but at what cost? When your boyfriend carries a gun and makes you tremble when he touches you, what hope is there?

Stafford-Clark's fast-as-a-bullet direction, combined with Feehily's knowing script, provides the characters and the audience with a sense of hope. You feel Cat's pain and long for her to escape and make a life on her own. Negga's performance is incredibly powerful and helps you engage and empathise with the character's plight. In a tense bathroom scene, the young actress conveys pain, low self-esteem and a survival instinct as Shiel's Mark literally loses it, holding her head underwater and shouting abuse all the while.

All of the performers are excellent and avoid the danger of descending into caricature. Gina Moxley shines as two overbearing mothers and a middle-class old lush out on the town. Rohr brings poignancy to his two roles as Cat's dad and also her older lover, similar characters with hearts of gold. And Aidan O'Hare provides much needed humour as Eddie, the well-meaning but naïve small time criminal.

Johanna Town's lighting provides a real edge to the drunken brawl scenes as the audience are taken beyond midnight and back again.

All that said, Duck is not flawless by any means. At times, the narrative seems to go round in circles, desperately searching for a conclusion. But it remains fresh, energetic, and relevant.

- Glenn Meads (reviewed at Manchester's Library Theatre)