By Shelagh Stephenson. Directed by Ben Barnes. Starring Christopher Adlington, Alan Barry, Jan Carey, Ingrid Craigie, Mark Lambert, Amy Marston.  Peacock Theatre until 16 April.


Opening to the chords of Radiohead's 'Everything In Its Right Place', 'Enlightenment' distinguishes itself as a contemporary work from the outset. Written by English playwright Shelagh Stephenson, it is the first play by a female British writer to be commissioned by the national theatre.

The story, which concerns a couple whose 20-year-old son Adam went on holidays to Asia and never came back, starts at a point of increasing desperation for the mother and father some months after the disappearance.

In the opening scenes they rehearse their theories on what might have happened to him, with the mother refusing to allow herself to believe that her son is dead but suffering in the limbo of doubt. The father rashly counters that he was probably vaporised in a bombing in Jakarta, seeming to prefer to fear the worst.

The parents soon feel like the have tried everything in the search for their son, including consulting a psychic who styles herself a 'sensitive' and punctuates the fraught situation with some humorous banter with the father. When he makes a jibe about her supposed knowledge of persons deceased, she retorts: "They do everything [in heaven] that they do here except without the pain and the ego."

Meanwhile, a TV documentary maker becomes interested in their story. The parents are wary of the woman's tabloid-style methods (as she puts it herself with a note of faux grandeur, "I tell white lies in the pursuit of truth") but they are slow to refuse her advances outright.

Then the mother receives a phone call telling her that her son has been found, but is not met by what she expects when she goes to the airport to be reunited with him.

While the drama stays close to the narrative about the family, references are made to broader themes of the conflict between East and West and its consequent dangers for modern living, drawing comparisons with the work of another foreign writer with Irish connections, Michel Houllebecq.

The soundtrack, featuring music by Radiohead, Coldplay and Keane, is just as fresh and serves to underpin the cutting edge feel of the play.

From the establishing scenes, all of the players in the small cast put in convincing performances, Ingrid Craigie as the mother in particular.

Ultimately, this intelligent, relevant and engaging drama is best suited to young adults, who will find that it dispels the myth that Irish theatre is limited to hoary old yarns about families feuding about land to an audience almost as old as the storylines.

Bill Lehane