Guiding Star at the National - Cottesloe

Although Jonathan Harvey's Guiding Star is set on Merseyside in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, the play is less about football, than how two families cope with the pain of grief, loss and betrayal.

It was D.H. Lawrence who said the dead 'cling on to the living, and won't let go', and in Guiding Star it is the 96 souls who perished in Sheffield that won't let go of Harvey's taciturn protagonist, Terry Fitzgibbon (Colin Tierney).

Like the talismanic circle of sand he constructs around himself at the start of the play, Terry fences himself in, unable to face his job, sleep with his wife Carol(Tracey Wilkinson), or get through the day without being 'bevvied up'.

But, as Liverpool-born Harvey shows, there comes a point when chronic suffering begins to wear on those around us: Terry's family are the real victims; as are their neighbours, the Sweets, whose son suffers from cystic fibrosis.

The Fitzgibbons' youngest, Liam (Carl Rice), also has a cross to bear, growing up gay in a bigoted, working-class community. With Charlie Sweet(Jake Abraham) deriding the sort of son who turns out to be a 'bird in a lad's body' and Terry ranting on against 'poofs', it's little wonder the boy has to resort to furtive nocturnal encounters on railway embankments and in the 'Backy field'.

Guiding Star isn't all unmitigated gloom though. There are genuinely funny moments that pierce the darkness and, in the capable hands of director Gemma Bodinetz, some hilarious portrayals of vividly-sketched characters.

With her sub-Spice Girl outfits, Gina (Samantha Lavelle) is the insensitive teenager who professes to have 'seen more erections than a master scaffolder', yet contrives to keep her lusty boyfriend, Lawrence Fitzgibbon (Kieran O'Brien) at bay ; and foul-mouthed, joint-puffing Marni Sweet (beautifully played by Tina Malone) is the housewife with a big heart and a waistline to match.

Bruce Macadie's simple set (two doors and a screen for back-projection) is host to frequent scene changes, from a dinghy on the high seas, to a suburban living room, while Richard Harvey's music borrows a leaf from TV dramas to nicely point up the various mood swings.

For the most part Guiding Star is highly enjoyable, with its tackling of thorny subjects and witty, sharply observed dialogue. My main bone of contention however, is with the play's supposedly upbeat conclusion. The final scene plays out to the Lennon hit 'Woman', and we are led to believe Terry has been rehabilitated, but the reality is that Harvey leaves too many issues unresolved for us to believe this is really a happy ending.

Richard Forrest