Patrick Godfrey in Here We Go
Patrick Godfrey in Here We Go
© Keith Pattison

Intriguing, short – just 45 minutes; still a bit skinny, that, even at the knock-down price of £15 for all tickets – and imbued with death, Caryl Churchill in her new play Here We Go – no, dear, not the football chant — has maintained her reputation for keeping us guessing. Also, she refuses to play any kind of game, except her own: in this case, a poetic triptych of mortality that makes Beckett at his most stringent look like a chatterbox.

In the first section, mourners gather after the funeral of a thrice-married lubricious anarchist, interjecting their dismal small talk with startling one-liners about their own demise ("I die five years later stabbed by an intruder").

In the second, that dead chap – or possibly someone completely different – knocks at heaven's gate, bare-torsoed, falling down a tunnel, a tube train coming to kill him, and wondering about Purgatory and Cerberus, dog of the underworld. Patrick Godfrey – what a trouper! — does this superbly, a philosophical oldie with an urgent sense of enquiry poised on the brink.

In the third section, there's a wordless Godfrey again, getting in and out of his pyjamas in a home, attended by a caring nurse. Churchill's stage directions in the published text says the very old or ill person (no characters in this play) gets dressed and undressed "for as long as the scene lasts."

Dominic Cooke's production, designed almost as a photo-negative by Vicki Mortimer, and lit with brutal switches and a brilliant sizzle at one point by Guy Hoare, suffers badly from a whimsical staging of the first scene. The actors should be stationary, but they wobble around in an abstract grey void and you have to fight hard to catch what they are saying.

I'm all for Churchill in big theatres, but I really don't understand why this piece is in the unforgiving Lyttelton. It would make a wonderful curtain-raiser to Wallace Shawn's Evening in the Talk House in the Dorfman round the corner, a play that delves back into the past in a completely different way but with a similar relish for fleshing out detail in macabre and disjointed fashion; Shawn and Churchill, both in their seventies, are rare stylists of theatrical language and a double-bill would have made the point more effectively.

You could see an actor like Paul Scofield bringing more mystery and tragic weight to this Churchill play, but RSC veteran Godfrey in his eighties is remarkable, so we can't complain. The cast in the first section includes wonderful actors – Susan Engel, Joshua James (fresh from his Konstantin in the Seagull at Chichester), Amanda Lawrence and Stuart McQuarrie – but they are subservient to a higher purpose, and have no chance to let rip, or RIP.

Here We Goruns at the National Theatre until 19 December