Serjeant Musgrave's Dance, Oxford Stage Company, York Theatre Royal.

THE arrival in York of John Arden's anti-imperialist, anti-war parable Serjeant Musgrave's Dance could not be timed more aptly - opening on the day that President George Bush flew in with the biggest entourage since J-Lo's last flying visit for Top Of The Pops.

Barnsley playwright Arden, now 73 and living in Ireland, retains all his ire - it is hard to recall a more angry or harsh play written since ancient Greek times.

Serjeant Musgrave's Dance requires a cast of 14, with no doubling up of roles, making it something of a luxury item in the theatre catalogue. Nevertheless, Oxford Stage Company specialises in restoring attic-consigned classic plays to good health, and Holmes and his cast have done a mighty fine job in reviving Arden's tale of a band of soldiers in the 1880s arriving in a cold, strike-torn northern English mining town, where the mayor (Colin Tarrant) runs town and mine alike.

Led by Serjeant Musgrave (Edward Peel), the soldiers are outwardly on a recruitment drive, but the serjeant and his renegades have another mission - Musgrave had indulged in an act of retaliatory violence in a British colony, and he now wants to ram home the futility of war.

Arden's language is richly poetic and potent if very wordy; the performances, particularly by Carter, are impassioned and engrossing; the play is a heavy-footed dance, making for hard but rewarding graft for the audience.

Charles Hutchinson

* Runs until Saturday. Box office, (01904) 623568.

Published: 20/11/2003