Dolly's kitchen

Theatre - Kate Kellaway enjoys Frank McGuinness's heated play about love and war

Women who rule the roost are a tradition in Irish writing. In Frank McGuinness's tremendous new play - his first for five years - men are, without exception, the weaker sex.

Dolly West's Kitchen is dominated not by Dolly, but by her mother, Rima, who looks like a queen out of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland and is a sort of self-appointed royal: tipsily majestic. She does not, she admits, know what geology is - but she resembles an extraordinary geological specimen, a great red rock with a craggy face. She is indecent, but indomitable. "If I felt a man's hand up my skirt now, I wouldn't know what he was looking for," she announces with gusto. She doesn't care what she says or how it is received. She inquires in her best party manner: "What is it like with two men in the bed?" No one answers. There is an advanced silence. "I'm only asking," she adds convivially.

Rima - magnificently played by Pauline Flanagan - knows more about love than she lets on. She knows about her son's homosexuality and the frustrations of her daughters. She knows about tolerance and grief. She sets the tone for the play: wildly funny, but hers is a laughter that can bear anything, that has to absorb heartache. It comes as no surprise that, when Rima dies, the family fractures. Without her, the centre cannot hold.

The play is set between 1943 and 1945, and challenges the notion of Ireland's neutrality during the Second World War. To McGuinness, "neutrality" is a cold word and an alien concept. He exposes it as a myth - in domestic life and politics - and draws us into a family of violently conflicting passions. Justin West (Michael Colgan) is in the Irish army. He wishes Hitler luck and hates the English with all the feeling that his weedy frame can support. His sister, Dolly, can at least pretend to put a distance between herself and Ireland - after all, she has lived in Italy, where she studied the history of art. Donna Dent plays Dolly movingly: cool but animated, she keeps her unhappiness to herself. "I was never one for walking down the aisle," she explains to brazen young Anna (Lucianne McEvoy), as though getting married were no more than a bad habit.

Dolly was in love with an Englishman who unexpectedly returns into her life as an officer in the army. Steven Pacey's Alec is all too convincing; he suffers from the tiresome English habit of making important subjects seem droll. He cannot talk about love, either - without help from Dolly.

The passion of this play is overwhelming - a marvellous contrast to much modern writing. Take Dolly on the unlikely subject of a sixth- century mosaic in Ravenna that shows people walking toward their God. It is powerful, but deliberately anti-lyrical speech - poetry without wings. McGuinness is an Irish Chekhov, even if there are only two sisters in this play. Both of the West girls are as superstitious as Russians, and as stoical, too; especially Esther (beautifully played by Catherine Byrne), who longs to leave Ireland - "I'd like to sail the Atlantic" - but never will. She suffers for her ardour, but does not succumb to it. Her pragmatism is balanced between sacrifice and survival. So she stays married to Ned (Simon O'Gorman), the good man she never loves.

Dolly West's Kitchen is filled with uninhibited frustration - a paradox that dominates the dialogue. The action takes place in Buncrana, County Donegal, in a kitchen that is too smartly designed to be true, with its verdigris-coloured wood, pristine Aga and copper saucepans (Joe Vanek's handiwork). McGuinness writes about territory - there is a marvellous exchange, served up as a joke, in which Justin asks the gay American soldier with whom he will have an affair: "You've crossed the border?" To which the rejoinder is: "Hasn't everyone?" It is a serious joke, which reverberates throughout. This is a play about crossing borders. Justin falls in love with the enemy, Marco (the starrily camp Perry Laylon Ojeda). Dolly agrees to emigrate to England - also for love.

Patrick Mason's direction is masterly: the end of the play is brilliantly choreographed, as people resolve into couples, ending up with what may prove unsuitable partners for life. The scene that follows Rima's funeral is darkly Shakespearean. Esther and Dolly seem to hate each other, like a gentler, Irish version of Goneril and Regan. But when Dolly wordlessly lets Esther know that their mother is dead, they are united in loss. McGuinness understands families who love and fight. He understands war on every level. His play is a triumph: don't miss a place at Dolly's table.

Dolly West's Kitchen is at the Old Vic, London, until 29 July (020-7369 1722)

This article first appeared in the 05 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Driving back to happiness