Playboy of the Western World, Royal Exchange, Manchester

Royal Exchange, Manchester

The glass arena of the Royal Exchange has been converted into the biggest shebeen ever seen in County Mayo by Conor Murphy's set for JM Synge's play. Barrels are stacked in the front of house, while on stage a crate of cabbages fills one corner, while sacks of straw, a pile of sheepskins and a collection of grimy bottles and glasses suggest all the paraphernalia of a simple agrarian community in 1907.

Despite - or because of - this attention to naturalistic detail, Greg Hersov's production does not quite add up to the sum of its enjoyable parts. It holds the attention, but the final despairing cry of its heroine provokes a ripple of laughter rather than sympathy.

This is not the fault of Mairead McKinley as Pegeen Mike. She is no delicate Celtic flower, but a sturdily beautiful woman you can imagine giving short shrift to ewes and suitors alike - and one who has long waited for a man who can fire her appetite, not her common sense. Michael Colgan is more showy as Christy, the muddy boy who seeks sanctuary and then love in Pegeen's pub with a story of having killed his father in a potato field.

Synge never committed himself to whether he had written a tragedy or a comedy. But for all his lyrical brilliance he has something urgent to say about an impoverished society for whom a criminal is a celebrity, and about loneliness when talk and drink flow free but emotional commitment is not dispensed at all.

Except for the maligned Widow Quin (unsentimentally realised by Eileen Pollock) everyone sooner or later behaves cruelly in The Playboy of the Western World. Although nobody would accuse this production of prettifying the play it is lovingly maintained rather than passionately felt.

· Until November 29. Box office: 0161-833 9833.


Paul Allen

The GuardianTramp

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