In Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, one character sings: “Oh, if life were made of moments,/Even now and then a bad one!/But if life were only moments,/Then you’d never know you had one”. She then goes on to urge: “Let the moment go…./Don’t forget it for a moment, though.”

I was hauntingly reminded of these words while watching Forty Winks, Kevin Elyot’s latest play that is now premiering at the Royal Court. The point about theatre, says Charlie, a budding 31-year-old fictional playwright in the play, is that “it can give you what you can’t actually have”; and Elyot, the playwright who created him, has obsessively re-written the same play again and again about seeking to reclaim those lost but defining moments in life that got away and can’t be had again, from My Night with Reg and Mouth to Mouth (also originally premiered at the Court) to The Day I Stood Still (seen at the National).

“If we could only step back….”, says Diana to Don, the boy she once loved at school, when they are reunited for the first time in 14 years in this play. She’s now married to Charlie’s older brother Howard, who was the school prefect who not only stole Don’s girlfriend but also shopped Don to the headmaster for stealing a book – another event that Don has brooded over and resented ever since. Charlie, meanwhile, has also always had an unrequited passion for Don that has stayed with him forever, too.

As these events are pored over in four short, intimate, compressed scenes that play out in just 70 lean minutes and across different time-frame jumps, Elyot has created an intricately patterned drama about the complexities of love and loss. It’s also possibly his most disturbing play yet for reasons it would be unfair to spoil the surprise of.

Katie Mitchell’s deliberately spare but emotionally charged production plays it with a febrile, minutely calibrated tension that exerts a powerful hold throughout. It’s only a pity that Hildegard Bechtler’s impressive design requires lengthy scene changes that threaten to dissipate the tension between each scene. But it is blessed with an amazing ensemble of terrific actors, including Dominic Rowan as Don, Anastasia Hille as Diane, Simon Wilson as her husband Howard and Paul Ready as Howard’s brother Charlie.

- Mark Shenton