Irish playwright Marina Carr debuted her post-feminist anti-heroine at Dublin's Abbey theatre back in 1996 - challenging idealized mother figures and symbols of national womanhood.

In Carrie Cracknell's pitch-black Almeida revival, Alison Oliver is desperately numb and achingly childlike as Portia, trapped in a stultifying marriage to the richest man around, albeit one with a gammy leg who claimed half a million in compensation for an industrial farming accident.

Her life is mirrored by  the landlocked geography of County Offaly, but also haunted by the suicide of her beloved twin Gabriel 15 years previously.Ham & High: Alison Oliver as Portia Coughlan Alison Oliver as Portia Coughlan (Image: Marc Brenner)

She inhabits a liminal world, obsessed with the forces that determine our destinies, unable to mother her young children and reliant on booze to cope.

On a set that meshes kitchen-sink realism with expressionist background rubble, the underbelly of life in an Irish town is evoked. Themes of incest, infidelity, suicide and ethnic prejudice – Portia is a half Irish-traveller – hit hard.

Alongside her cuckolded husband, a roll-call of exploitative males dominate: the bad boy seeking sex, the violent father, the cowboy barman in fine boots (Conor Macneill - brilliantly credible) who tries his luck with Portia by the banks of the Belmont river.Ham & High: Portia Coughlan runs at The Almeida Theatre Islington until November 18Portia Coughlan runs at The Almeida Theatre Islington until November 18 (Image: Marc Brenner)

Carr makes the point that every microcosm of restrictive small-town life will throw up types that chill the soul – in Portia’s case, kill it off completely - and a finer sensibility and intelligence can’t serve as a sufficient buffer.

But the line drawn here between character and caricature is oft-times thin; the comedy can feel contrived and spliced in for relief against the darkness. Stock female types make their due appearance: Kathy Kiera Clarke as Portia’s glamorous aunt, a former sex worker who’s settled down with security guard Senchil, "he wasn’t born he was knitted," adds colour, as does venomous grandma Blaize (Sorcha Cusack).

Carr’s poetic language express the rushes of freedom Portia feels through nature. Tonal shifts are almost brutal and Cracknell makes a feature of the blend of mysticism, myth and vicious reality. Tension dissipates in the second act. Even the exquisite music by Maimuna Memon, given voice through Gabriel’s ghost, isn’t quite enough to lift the gloom.

Portia Coughlan runs at The Almeida Theatre until November 18.