Don't make a drama out of a critic

THEATRE; St Nicholas The Bush Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture
Where could you find a set of people even half as unassuming, well adjusted, life-loving, nurturing, and eager to embrace new experiences as a bunch of theatre critics? For some unaccountable reason, this tends not to be a perception shared by dramatists. It's as the epitome of self- hating failure that the theatre critic is privileged to feature in their works. Last year, a play on Off-Broadway, entitled Arts and Leisure, centred on a syndicated hack who had all but lost his humanity, the job having reduced him to judging moral issues and his own personal relationships in terms of what "works", or doesn't, theatrically. "There's something about racism in practice that works like a big cast-iron Broadway hit..."

Now, in St Nicholas, the new Conor McPherson one-man play at The Bush, a jaded Dublin theatre critic, lost in hard-drinking hack hell, goes through a form of emotional breakdown which involves a tragicomic obsession with a beautiful young actress and, somewhat less conventionally, a period of time living with and working for a household of vampires in London. The 25-year-old author scored a hit last year at this address with This Lime Tree Bower, a drama of overlapping monologues in which three characters gave their different versions of one unlikely weekend in a small, seedy, Irish seaside resort. The piece was praised for its narrative grip and laconic comedy. For at least half of the new play, brilliantly performed by Brian Cox, these virtues are again on vibrant display.

"I wanted to let my compassion seep out across the stage. Handicapped people in love. Queers and lesbians absolving each other. A liberal, fucking, all-encompassing ... you know. But nothing came. Nothing ever came." Even when - or especially when - recalling his now defunct idealism and creative ambitions, the tone is one of sardonic self-contempt, the lines timed with a wonderful off-hand scathingness and many a collusive hoist of the eyebrows by Mr Cox who, with his great, craggy, sensitive face and fleshy build, looks like an ex-university rugby player run to fiftysomething seed. Via flashes of swift, brutal insight ("I'd never taken the care to form an opinion. I just had them" ... "drunken pig-headedness being past off as authority" ... "fuck, you think I was going to surround myself with people who were succeeding?"), the writing pulls you into an existence which, precisely because of its corrupting, psuedo-powerful easiness and the cocoon provided by other befuddled failures, has become a kind of living death.

I much preferred the first half of the piece, where the reviewer, estranged from his family, gives excruciatingly hilarious accounts of the scraps he gets into because of his obsession with the actress. As a critic who has his notices written before the show is over, he engineers a pub encounter with the director and cast of the play she is in which he's just reviewed. He finds himself telling them that he's given the show a rave and becomes, under soul-searingly false pretences, the drunken toast of the party.

The second half has its drolleries, too, when, after further humiliations with this cast in London, the critic, granted a new supernatural sexual attractiveness, winds up pimping in clubs for a household of vampires. Come again? Well quite, but then the question marks dangling over this tale seem to be the whole point, as the play turns into a rather clumping and contrived meditation on, and demonstration of, the responsible human need for stories to mean something. That rationale for its fancifulness did not, I'm afraid, stop the attention of this contemptible critic from drifting.

To 22 March. Booking: 0181-743 3388