It's the sharp, accurate detail and truthfully tangled relationships within that broad framework that enable Mahoney's funny and perceptive play to swerve, by and large, from too rutted a course and to involve you in the characters' intricately shared past. The last in a satisfying series of co-productions between the Royal Court and the National Theatre Studio, the piece is played in an unbroken 90 minutes of "real time", with the audience arranged in an L shape round an authentic-looking set. Three friends are decorating the old haunt for a child's party when, all sexily untrustworthy charisma in a Gucci suit, Michael French's Jerry swans in. It's the first time Ewan Stewart's Patrick, as worn down and faded as Jerry is cosmetically sleek, has seen his former best mate since Jerry, tired of Patrick's dithering, reneged on a projected partnership 20-odd years back. For one, property development and wealth; for the other, small-fry building jobs, worthy work with a boys' football club, and a family.
Almost every potential cliche in the play has a twist that redeems it, and Edward Hall's production elicits beautifully shaded performances, particularly from Mr French as he skilfully signals, from underneath the wide-boy swagger, a rather lost soul who has seen through success and will spend the rest of his life pining for an irrecoverable youth. Flickering between ironic amusement, social embarrassment and sudden accesses of keen pain, Doon Mackichan also gives a splendidly natural performance as Patrick's wife Kate who, inevitably, harbours unresolved longings for Jerry.
The piece starts off feeling too much like the artificial product of Jerry's monumentally coincidental arrival and, belatedly erasing that initial impression, ends up overplotted. But it's the mark of its comic suppleness that when Jerry makes an offer that exposes Patrick's inadequacy all over again, the mood is humorously rueful rather than tragic. Patrick, the builder, wriggles out of the project by admitting he can't stand the noise and mess of big building sites. Quirky touches like that ensure that Sacred Heart is no standard trudge down the obstacle course of memory lane.
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