A spot of motorway madness

LONDON NEW PLAY FESTIVAL: Liese Spencer weaves her way between stalled realism, regal procession and breakneck BSE satire
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The second week of the London New Play Festival saw the opening of two radically different new works at the Riverside Studios, one an ambitious attempt to dramatise contemporary social ills, the other a modern fantasy scripted by prolific Scottish playwright Anita Sullivan (who, after the transfer of her fringe play Just Whores to the Edinburgh Traverse in 1995, won over critics at this year's Festival with a gourmet adaptation of Faustus in five courses).

Written by Manchester dramatist John Doona, Hard Shoulder is an overwrought, often incomprehensible indictment of consumerism. After a promising opening, set in the eponymous motorway dead zone, the play focuses on a dislocated working-class community united only in its use of the local supermarket. We follow the fates of exploited shelf-stackers, brain-washed customers, an evil manager and the New Age underclass inhabitants of the superstore's subterranean car park.

Multiple storylines and truncated 60-second scenes seem designed for, or rather derived from, TV drama. They might work on the small screen but on stage, under the agitated direction of Phil Sternen, they chop about confusingly to the sound of rattling shopping trolleys.

Doona's aphoristic reflections on the demonic nature of road travel and compulsive consumption provide a bare sense of continuity as his unwieldy 16-character caravan lurches improbably from one social issue to the next. An all-inclusive plot obviously strives for State of the Nation realism, but succeeds only in an almost hysterical gloominess, running through child abuse, arson, senile dementia, joy-riding and ram-raiding like some grim Daily Mail check-list of social malaise.

In contrast to the urban sprawl of Hard Shoulder, Anita Sullivan's An Audience with Queen is an exercise in spare, poetic licence. Taking a premise not dissimilar to Sue Townsend's The Queen and I, Sullivan's drama finds the monarch stripped of pomp and ceremony and stranded in the grounds of an old Scottish mansion that appears to be jammed in some quasi-Victorian time warp. She becomes the guest of a hostile housekeeper and a savage boy, an eccentric pair who live in the woods, creating their own reality through fairytale as they wait for the house to be cleared. As the play progresses, it becomes clear that, while the Queen may have slipped out of time, she, like the house, awaits repossession by the media and her bodyguards.

In this pastoral bubble, the Queen predictably excavates the real personality that lies under her role as national icon. The play milks the fish-out- of-water bathos of this situation, but Sullivan's script is more remarkable for the way in which it disconcerts the audience, creating a subtle uncertainty about the exact nature of both the characters and their environment. Primitive unworldliness makes the Boy and Housekeeper incredible to the Queen, while a five o'clock shadow developing on the royal chin arouses their own suspicions as to the real identity of their mystery visitor. As each confronts the other, Sullivan explores the power of storytelling to shape reality, weaving well-written original folklore into a larger meditation on the fictional nature of national news. Along with her ear for broad Scots dialogue, Sullivan's talent lies in pursuing the comic logic of her argument to imagine a world in which tabloid stories have exceeded their role as gutter gossip and achieved the status of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Both of the above could benefit from a bit of pruning. The same could not be said of Hoover Bag, a delightfully sick piece directed by Anthony Neilson at the Young Vic Studio, and certainly the shortest, silliest and most entertaining of the three. Set in a post-BSE Britain of Linda McCartney steaks and black-market meat dealers, this beautifully acted slice of suburban horror is a one-idea drama, pared to the bone and played for laughs. Neilson's nasty little fable has now finished its run but deserves another outing. If it does return from the fringe incinerator, it's worth seeing, if only to admire Jimmy Gallagher's slavering madman humming a maniacal "Old MacDonald" while he chews up the window box of Velma the would-be cannibal.

n 'Hard Shoulder' and 'An Audience with Queen' at Riverside Studios, London, W6 to Sat (0181-741 2255). Festival to 5 Oct