Let's All Play at Unhappy Families ; Theatre ++ LEAVES ++ Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court LONDON

Article excerpt

Lori had always done everything expected of her, until she did the devastatingly unexpected. The eldest of three girls, she had fulfilled her mother's dream of getting out of Belfast by landing a place at university in London. But just a few weeks into her first term, she had nearly died after swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills. Her premature homecoming is fraught with tension, guilt, anger and grief, both for Lori and her bewildered middle-class family.

Leaves - Lucy Caldwell's George Devine Awardwinning debut play - dramatises the stresses of this desolate situation with unblinking insight and quiet, rueful humour. Lori does not appear until the second act, but the pressure of her offstage presence is powerful in Garry Hynes's sensitive Royal Court/Druid co-production.

At an edgy family dinner on the eve of Lori's return, no one can think of anything else. The anxious, preoccupied mother Phyllis (Fiona Bell) upsets her middle daughter Clover by forgetting to ask about her crucial audition for the orchestra. Not that it went well, given the distractions. The father David (Conor Lovett) retreats into his research for a book about Irish place names, which he intones in a litany to ward off his wife's attempt at a 4am heart- to-heart.

On her first night home, Lori refuses to come down for the meal of "haricot bean and root vegetable stew with curly kale" that Phyllis has prepared specially from The Optimum Nutrition Bible, in the desperate hope that her daughter's suicidal depression stems from something as explicable as an inadequate diet.

Leaves is particularly acute about the strains imposed on the younger family members who had looked up to Lori as a role-model, and the 11- and 15-year-old siblings, Poppy and Clover, are beautifully played by real-life sisters Daisy and Penelope Maguire. Poor Poppy is touchingly eager to comfort Lori and to make up for the intimacy she feels she missed out on in the past, excluded by the age-gap from the closeness enjoyed by her sisters. …