January 23, 2006 2:00 am

The Late Henry Moss, Almeida Theatre, London

To see the European premiere of The Late Henry Moss is to be made aware, or to be reminded, that Sam Shepard is on the shortlist of today's foremost playwrights. (And some of us needed reminding, after the thin mess of his recent The God of Hell.) It's so good a play that I'm surprised it hasn't reached us sooner. Its premiere in San Francisco in 2000 starred Sean Penn, Nick Nolte and Woody Harrelson, no less.

Let me not overpraise it - in this English production at least, it occasionally becomes an artificial piece of fictional rhetoric - but it is engrossing: about a patriarch and his sons, about death and dying, about denial and uncertainty, about sibling rivalry, and about identity. In its coverage of family relations, it is directly related to two of Shepard's greatest plays, Buried Child and True West. The death of Henry Moss has brought his sons, Earl and Ray, to his house in New Mexico; but in what circumstances did he die? What memories of him does each of them admit to? Ray, who is hostile to everybody, conducts an inquiry into his father's last actions.The past holds us in suspense, its implications still gathering as the play ends.

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Michael Attenborough's staging is generally strong, and well-paced. As Ray, Andrew Lincoln shows that he is an ever-growing actor: commanding, angry. But he acts here as if slightly too aware of his own accomplishment: his over-refined control (accent, posture, gesture) keeps telling us that this is only fiction. As Earl, Brendan Coyle brings another level of realism to his role: only his American accent reminds you that he is acting at all, and you are held by the perpetual contrasts within him - strong/weak, febrile/steady, hard/soft. The most perfect performances are from Trevor Cooper as the late Henry and Flaminia Cinque as his Conchalla, both of whom burst on to the stage with such intensity that we seem both to know them at once and to be alarmed by whatever they might do next.

Tel 020 7359 4404

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