Cul de sac: THEATRE

I Licked a Slag's Deodorant Royal Court Upstairs, London Jim Cartwright 's new play offers no trite solutions in an evocative portrayal of brutality, despair and loneliness. By Paul Taylor

The Royal Court has certainly been trading in some attention-snagging titles of late. First, there was Shopping and Fucking - a name that gives a pretty fair indication of which way the wind is blowing. Now, there's Jim Cartwright's I Licked A Slag's Deodorant, an appellation with a rather more elusive range of suggestion. Could it be, perhaps, a play about a simple-minded soul who has performed the aforesaid activity in the hope of freshening his breath before setting to work on the slag? Then again, are we talking about deodorant that is still in the roll-on dispenser or deodorant that is now armpit-based? It would make quite a difference.

In the first few seconds of Cartwright's stingingly funny, wrenchingly sad production of this two-hander, the mystery is solved. Looking like he was born in an ill-fitting Oxfam suit, the excellent Tim Potter's staring- eyed, sensitive Man - a vulnerable, working class, middle-aged and now mummy-less mummy's boy - reveals that he licked the roll-on deodorant while the crack-addicted Slag (an admirably unsparing Polly Hemingway) was out of her room. A gesture of child-like dependency? In all events, it's the only comfort he gets at this stage, for the Slag, desperate for a fix, has taken his money and run, leaving him to the brutal mercies, in the street outside, of Fatman, the drug-gangster.

Taking the couple through a disjointed dark night of the soul and then into the most surreal form of supportive cohabitation yet devised by man, the play harks back, in its prose-poetry idiom, to Cartwright's landmark Road, that Under Milk Wood of the urban scrap-heap. You might dub this genre "Road-rage", if it weren't for the fact that Cartwright's no-hopers tend to take their anger out on themselves. They don't analyse their predicament politically; instead, courtesy of Cartwright's heightened associative language, they pore like proletarian Pevsners over the architectural detail of their existential plight.

It's with her ravaged sensibility that Hemingway's superb Slag (limbs one huge nervous tick; eyes on fire with wit-flecked contempt) grades the men who use her, from the "snobs who fuck like they're cutting up a fish" to the "slow lads who look and look". "They've lynched my cunt," she declares, but the political overtones of that verb are characteristically not followed up. Proving that Cartwright is on a continuum with Beckett and Bennett, the Man sees the whole of his lonely experience in elegiac terms. Take the haunting way he imagines the last days of another cut- off neighbour who may have committed suicide: "The kitchen floor's dirty and his cheek's stuck to it... and there's a bottle of bleach and there's no one, and the telly's playing for days and days and through the night in the dark it's a lantern show rolling over his dead back."

William Dudley's railinged and banquette-ringed circular set enhances the appalling evocativeness of the show, allowing no barrier between the rancid wetness of the streets and the terminal damp of the interiors. Is this 50-minute chamber work defeatist? Is it sentimental? The latter not at all: the couple do not "reform" one another in any yucky Hollywood way. The Man, for God's sake, takes to living under her bed where the desperate-for-crack Slag continues to ply her trade willy (so to speak) nilly. Defeatist? Well, only if you believe that the sole decent way of dramatising these problems is through an agitprop piece that confidently indicates the Way Forward.

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