Edinburgh Festival '99: Fringe & Film Reviews

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The Independent Culture


Traverse Theatre, Venue 15 (0131-228 1404) to 4 Sept

THERE'S NOTHING like a stint in prison, it seems, for bringing out the creative writer in people. Look at that Jonathan Aitken: hardly been inside five minutes and he's giving birth to a ballad. On an altogether higher level than his self-serving doggerel, we now have a caustic black comedy about South London "drummers" (slang for house-breakers) by Simon Bennett, who began writing while serving a two-year sentence for burglary at HMP Winchester. His background lends a whole new meaning to TS Eliot's dictum that while minor scribblers borrow, true artists steal.

It also lends a pungent pong of authenticity to this play, which focuses on the fall-out from the release of Peter Sullivan's quietly compelling Ray, who did a three-year stretch for a crime that was partly a stitch- up. Ray, we quickly gather, has relapsed into "drumming".

No self-respecting play these days can dispense with an act of brutal male rape in the manner of Blasted and Shopping and Fucking. It's as de rigeur as flower arranging was in the plays of yesteryear. Drummers climaxes with Ray's violent violation of his younger brother Barry (played by the excellent Callum Dixon). Your first thought is: Oh God, here we go again, only this time with the sick additional twist of incest. But then, the terrible psychological plausibility of this atrocity hits you, the way it vents on Barry all of Ray's furious resentment - against his mother (Maggie McCarthy) for rejecting him as the spawn of the devil; against his brother for furtively cheating on him and for getting in druggie thrall to Paul Ritter's weak, deeply unsavoury Pete, a fence who uses his family's back-street pool hall as a base for heroin dealing; against the rumour mill that insinuates he had a homosexual affair in prison.

The rape is all the more shocking because it erupts at the end of a scene where Ray has remained in calmly lethal, Pinteresque control. This takes place in a manor house during a break-in. The interiors in Max Stafford- Clark's expertly judged and superbly cast production are suggested by painted screens; it's only when the brothers penetrate this nob residence that there's a jokey transformation into 3-D.

Some of the play's episodes fail to sustain the requisite comic tension (the encounters between Pete and his disapproving father are comparatively sagging). But Bennett's shaping skills are richly evident in the manor- house sequence where, instead of making a speedy getaway, Ray emerges with elegant tray and subjects his increasingly unnerved brother to a barbed parody of a genteel tea-party ("Ah take it without milk now, I had no choice inside") before systematically destroying him. Bursting with the benefits of insider knowledge, this promising, linguistically live-wire piece supports, in the most benign of senses, the proposition that crime pays.