Back at the theatre where she made her breakthrough with The Memory of Water, Shelagh Stephenson's new work displays skill and wit without succeeding as a persuasive work.

Major movie star Tom Caballero (Don McManus) is flying to England for a Christmas reunion with the two women he calls his best friends. In tow is Iona (Ruth Gemmell), whose video camera – she's making a documentary of Tom s “real” life – seems stitched to her arm. In snowy Northumberland, meanwhile, Bea (Joanne Pearce) is worrying herself silly about Tom's arrival, and gaining no help from the lugubrious Thaddeus (an excellent Dermot Crowley), her Irish novelist boyfriend. Bea's daughter Joni (Sheridan Smith) dreams of escaping Blighty for Beverly Hills. And Kitty (Gwyneth Strong), Tom's other best pal, arrives in tears, ready to hang her guilty conscience about the wealth of the West, and her infidelity, around everyone's neck.

Stephenson slowly builds humour through her characters interactions. Whilst they fumble for meaning in their lives, however, so does the audience as it tries to discover the work's focus. It doesn t help that the trio of short scenes in Act One are superfluous, providing exposition that can be succinctly covered in the substantial fourth scene, nor that Ian Brown's direction fails to lift those early vignettes or provide sparkle.

Several revelations just before Act One ends and in Act Two ensure that a theme of identity finally emerges.

McManus works hard as a figure Stephenson vainly tries to move beyond caricature, while Pearce soldiers on admirably. Strong is unfortunately monochrome as television reporter Kitty, whilst Gemmell cannot do anything with Iona, an appendix to the action.

The evocative play title is revealed to be more prosaic in meaning than the magical connotations Tom has pinned on the phrase. For Thaddeus, escaping his mundane origins has elevated him - until reality unbearably intrudes. It is here, at the intersection of identity and invention, that Stephenson's real play lies.

Paul B Cohen