On the Shore of the Wide World, Royal Exchange, Manchester

Royal Exchange, Manchester

Families lie at the heart of drama. And Simon Stephens' new play, co-commissioned by the National Theatre and the Royal Exchange, offers a sensitive study of three generations of a suffering family. Even if this doesn't blow your mind away, it should impress with its honest examination of home truths.

If any phrase echoes through the play it is "I nearly did" - part of Stephens' point is that families are often precariously sustained by the road not taken.

Charlie Holmes, aged and churlish, and his long-suffering wife, Ellen, nurse secret regrets about life's lost opportunities. Both Charlie's son Peter, who restores old houses, and his wife, Alice, hover nervously on the verge of sexual infidelity in the wake of a tragic loss. And though their son Alex decamps to London with his girlfriend, in the end the siren call of their home town, Stockport, proves too strong.

In American plays families have violent emotional showdowns over the kitchen table. But Stephens has written a deeply English play about our national capacity for evasion. Peter is crucially unable to embrace his son at a station parting and can only reveal his resentment of his own father when the old man is unconscious.

And, even if there is nothing very new about the idea that English family life is built on a foundation of emotional inarticulacy, Stephens' play scores through its proximity to experience: intriguingly, the only figure in the play who releases people's passions is the much derided figure of Roy Keane.

Played against a floorcloth depicting a cloud-capped Stockport, Sarah Frankcom's production captures Stephens' vein of anguished lyricism and there are shining performances from David Hargreaves as the crusty Charlie, Nicholas Gleaves as the pusillanimous Peter, and Thomas Morrison as the absconding Alex.

No blinding revelations are offered but Stephens has come up with a wise, mature play that escapes from the 90-minute syndrome and shows how families are often bound together by guilt shame and secrecy.

· Until May 14. Box office: 0161-833 9833.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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