Arts: Theatre: A blast from the past

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The Independent Culture
IT MAY soon end up as a supermarket, a block of trendy offices or a set of loft apartments, but tonight - for the quartet of characters sliding into early middle age in Mick Mahoney's new play - the "up for sale" Sacred Heart Church Hall in NW3 is still the repository of a stack of glowing, if uneasy memories of a misspent youth clubbing there at weekends. The scenario in this drama is so classically familiar, it almost comes clamped within its own ironic quote marks: local boy made - pretty dodgily - good returns to home territory in order to stir latent lusts and rip the scab off some old wounds, while handily allowing the dramatist to call into question the meaning of success and failure, fraudulence and authenticity and the shaky, unexamined basis of most of our lives.

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.

Booking: 0171-565 5000. A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper