International festival: THEATRE Massage Assembly Rooms

Edinburgh Festival 97
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The Independent Culture
In a marked departure from the actor/ writer/ director's trademark ultra-disciplined intensity, this peculiarly half-baked Berkoff two-hander comes over all camp and naughtily playful about what he describes as the "delightful" British institution of the massage parlour - the kind where it's the "extras" that count. Strung together around the scenario of a stereotypically stultified Cockney couple who end up confronting each other unexpectedly across the massage table - he being a regular patron of such establishments, she having been secretly working in the one down the road - it features Berkoff in overblown mincing drag, spending much of the time ringing repetitious changes on hyperbolic descriptions of a hand-job.

This is supposedly the show's main source of humour - its use of quasi- Shakespearian rhyming verse and strings of elaborately high-flown similes to describe something so irreducibly smutty. But, while one can perhaps admire the writing's technical ingenuity, the joke - not exactly riotous to start with - is flogged to death and beyond. Besides becoming increasingly tedious, these endlessly circling variations effectively stall any real sense of movement through the piece, making for a very long 90 minutes.

According to his programme notes, Berkoff is concerned partly with exposing the "favourite British pastime" of euphemism-cloaked sexual hypocrisy - the existence of which is hardly headline news, although the factors behind it might have made a fertile starting-point. He seems uninterested, however, in digging below the surface, preferring to present it essentially as one of those quaint national quirks, the massage parlour depicted as a sort of friendly neighbourhood sanctuary where your regular British bloke can find "relief" of a type that his (invariably) sour-faced, nagging wife won't provide. Another joke, obviously, given the ending, but again the irony remains unexplored. The wife / masseur's lascivious enjoyment of her work, meanwhile, in Berkoff's portrayal of her as half happy hooker, half mythic temptress, handily sidesteps any troublesome potential questions of exploitation or abuse.

While Berkoff wiggles about camping it up, Barry Philips fills in as the husband and various punters, twice taking the spotlight to deliver long, Priapic, fantasy soliloquies, the second of which especially, featuring two schoolgirls masturbating amid an English pastoral idyll, could have been lifted near-verbatim from Hustler. Like the rest of Berkoff's putative shock-tactics - essentially amounting to graphic descriptions of the masseur's trade and liberal use of the word "cock" - these sequences came across as both undirected (why were they there?) and crudely blunt-edged; you don't go to see Berkoff expecting decorum, after all. Many in the audience, it must be said, seemed to relish the sight of Berkoff letting his hair down, but the sight of him playing against type glaringly fails to conceal the production's basic lack of structure or illuminating substance.

To 30 August. Booking: 0131-226 2428