Hard-hitting is a phrase that seems like it was invented to describe Zach Helm’s Good Canary. It made me laugh out loud, brought me close to tears and damn near made me physically sick too.

Having directed it in French in Paris and Spanish in Mexico, stage and screen legend John Malkovich has finally brought Stranger than Fiction screenwriter Helm’s the play to its native English language for the first time, while simultaneously making his London directorial debut.

Luckily for us, he chose the Rose Theatre.

Good Canary zeroes in on couple Jack (Harry Lloyd) and Annie (Freya Mavor), his career as a novelist is about to go stratospheric yet she is clearly vulnerable and dealing with her own demons and addictions. How does Jack handle his increasing success while Annie’s life spirals in the opposite direction?

Without a believable lead couple, the piece would clearly flounder and in Lloyd and Mavor Good Canary has two stunningly talented performers who make a frighteningly convincing and ‘real’ couple.

Lloyd’s is perfection in the more restrained performance as supportive, conflicted Jack but the star here is Mavor.

Her Annie is a whirlwind of phrenetic, magnetic energy fuelled by crippling anxiety and pills that breaks down in a raw, gut-punch of a second half. If ever I have seen a performance deserving of bags full of prizes and plaudits, surely this is it.

Good Canary starts out as a tight laugh-out-loud comedy drama where Helm’s flawlessly zippy script ostentatiously sings thanks to on-point performances.

No-one drops the ball here but the leads are awe-inspiring and Ilan Goodman is deliciously fun as Jeff, the friendly neighbourhood drug dealer who is close to locating his conscience but not quite close enough.

It is in the second half that Malkovich turns on the style, heading towards a moving resolution with some gorgeously effective flourishes such as a flickering light amidst a breakdown and a stirringly beautiful scene set to piano music that features no speech but instead the dialogue is projected onto the set rather than spoken.

Indeed, Pierre-Francois Limbosch’s set comprising three moving digital screens as backdrops is a triumph. The stylised artwork popping to life and bleeding yet more pathos in to the play. He is a frequent collaborator with Malkovich and it is no wonder their collaboration on this play in Paris brought them both awards.

Good Canary deals with some heavy subject matter – Helm realistically and poignantly deals with depression, bulimia and addiction and their triggers without ladling on the melodrama. With such darkness present, he also finds a way of imbuing his script with such light and not just with its crisply written gags.

Good Canary is at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, until October 8. Tickets cost from £8. Go to rosetheatrekingston.org

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