Cleverly, Hidden in the Sand puts a photographer and an archaeologist at the centre of a story about digging up, forgetting and confronting the past. It looks back on the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus from the vantage point of a late-nineties London preoccupied with further European conflicts in the Balkans, and the result is a delicately layered, thought-provoking play which is, by the end, both painful and hopeful.

Greek Cypriot Alexandra (Sally Dexter) is leading a solitary life, running a jewellery shop in London and mourning the lover she lost the day of the invasion, when a chance meeting with academic Jonathan (Scott Handy) forces her to think about the cost of clinging on to the past. Her niece, Sophia, is a war photographer just returned from Kosovo, and is thrilled by the prospect of romance for her aunt. Sophia (Daphne Alexander) is refreshingly forthright, but her confidence is laced with insecurity about her inability to speak Greek and her right to a heritage she can't remember. In the second half, circumstances lead all three characters, along with Alexandra's estranged sister Eleni, back to Famagusta (or, to give it its Greek name, Ammochostos, meaning 'hidden in the sand').  The sisters' confrontation is the emotional climax of the play, beautifully performed by Dexter as the hot-blooded Alexandra and Yolanda Vasquez as the more restrained Eleni.

The set is strikingly white, evoking Mediterranean walls, and is adaptable, as the space is called upon to represent a London flat, an art gallery, a beach and an official waiting-room. Projected black-and-white photographs help to create atmosphere, though the photographs which the play is most concerned with – Sophia's award-winning Kosovo shot, the portrait she takes of Alexandra and a photograph taken by her heroine of her missing father before the invasion – are not shown. The changes of location are not always very well signalled, and solemn piano music makes for some slightly cumbersome slow-motion transitions between scenes. The back wall includes a heavy door which remains closed throughout; this becomes a potent metaphor in the second half when the three women are waiting for news which will either heal or reopen the wounds from their past.

Sometimes I felt that Phillips was taking advantage of the Greek reputation for fieriness in order to indulge in histrionics, but Dexter's performance found a balance between Alexandra's vulnerability and her passion. The relationships between the women were believable and complex; the love story between Alexandra and Jonathan was less convincing, perhaps because the intense but diffident academic seemed out of place among all the Hellenic ardour. Nonetheless, there were some lovely moments between them: particularly, Jonathan's heartfelt recitation from The Merchant of Venice falling flat with Alexandra in the bittersweet final scene, and the early discussion of the joys of Neil Diamond ('the English are very cruel to Neil Diamond', says Alexandra).

The broader themes of remembering, forgetting and rewriting the past are elegantly threaded through the action: Jonathan's quest for fragments of the classical past and Sophia's anguished account of her adventures as a photojournalist are balanced against the repeated affirmation that what is lost will not be returned, and that all the characters, but Alexandra in particular, need to let go of their past.

In one scene, Sophia describes the artistic choices she made in order to produce her acclaimed photograph: the lens diameter, the red filter, the shutter speed slowed down in the service of aesthetics; she remembers it guiltily, realising that her photographer's eye made her detached from the scene itself: a man about to be shot in the head. The opposite is true of Hidden in the Sand – it is crafted with a certain lack of precision, but never loses its sincere engagement with the characters'emotional states.

Hidden in the Sand, at Trafalgar Studios

This new play by James Phillips is a bit too earnest and sentimental to be fashionable, but the compact human story is moving, and it gives a sensitive, bittersweet account of Cypriot history. Though it takes a few scenes to hit its stride, Hidden in the Sand thrives on Phillips' thoughtful writing and four strong performances. At Trafalgar Studios.

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