Mating rituals, capital affairs

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The Independent Culture
QUITE a good strike rate. Three new plays this week, and two worth seeing. The boom in new writing continues. A 26-year-old ex-journalist and ex-editor, Samuel Adamson, sets his clever first play, Clocks and Whistles, in a self-conscious world where people keep diaries, write poems and discuss an article in the Independent about whether London is a setting of diminishing interest for contemporary novelists. It clearly isn't for contemporary dramatists.

With only five characters and 20 scenes, Clocks and Whistles might be a TV play; but it works in Dominic Dromgoole's exemplary farewell production at the Bush, as the action moves around Paul Andrews's crafty set, between night-club, balcony, park, pub, party, flats, flats, and the steps outside flats. The characters circle in a watchful, wary kind of mating ritual.

They circle, primarily, round Anne, a needy, nervy actress, played with teasing comedy by Kate Beckinsale. (She's the late Richard Beckinsale's daughter; she also plays the lead in the forthcoming BBC adaptation of Emma.) Whether she is tucking her short hair behind her ear, running a finger along the top of the table, or tying one of her bijou presents with raffia, she does so with a developed sense of her own market value. The sun-dried tomatoes, she admits with healthy disdain, are for "some lighting technician who wants my babies". Beckinsale is pert, funny and acidic. But her performance goes further. There's callowness and hesitancy too.

She's well-partnered. Neil Stuke plays the easy-going working-class lad, who sits on the steps outside his Paddington flat, knows everyone's business and writes terrible poems. Stuke brings brio and attack, though anyone who doubts he is a realist should see the way he kisses Beckinsale. There is no mucking about.

Many first plays have a writer-type at the emotional centre. And this one's in publishing, keeps a diary, and withholds his feelings. John Light excels as the troubled, grimacing Henry. He's gay, but he adores Beckinsale. She's straight, but has an affair with Stuke. He's bisexual and has them both. No wonder there are references to Cabaret.

As the predatory sugar-daddy, Michael Cashman widens his beady eyes, and leans in on Henry with the challenge, "Don't you shop at a different department store?", while Melanie Thaw, as the sculptress neighbour, drops by to share a bottle of wine on the balcony and seems to want more. Dromgoole draws out highly detailed performances: rapid exchanges of looks, misjudged farewells, toying with props; there's a tremendous amount happening on a tiny stage.

Clocks and Whistles is the last of the "London Fragments" season at the Bush. What's so likeable about this trio - Simon Bent's Goldhawk Road, David Eldridge's Serving It Up, and now Clocks and Whistles - is the interest they show in the surfaces of urban life. It's as if art students had gone back to the studios and learnt to draw. They take on journalism - in effect - and say, no: it's like this. Dromgoole leaves the Bush on a high.

Clare McIntyre's new play The Thickness of Skin is better still. She asks a simple question: when one person helps another, who exactly benefits? Then she dramatises it - neatly, astutely, profoundly - in a comfortable middle-class setting, that (in Hettie Macdonald's powerful production) draws us right in. On designer Anabel Temple's steeply raked stage, a ladder leads to an attic, and a narrow staircase leads downwards. To the left there's a street, to the right, schoolgates, both flecked with snow. This is before and after Christmas, the time of giving.

There are recognisable figures. Rupert Frazer is the tight-lipped, unsentimental husband ("Do you know how much I pay in income tax?") and Elizabeth Garvie, in red jeans and floral shirt, his pent-up, over-anxious wife. As their gentle teenage son, Jonathan, Toby Ross-Bryant makes a touching debut. But it's with Fraser's sister, Laura, played by Amelia Bullmore, that we encounter a fascinating portrait of middle-class values. She has a complex, paradoxical affair with Eddie (Mark Strong), an unemployed northerner whom she meets at a homeless centre and brings home.

She wants to do good, makes a mess of things, and gets humiliated. He makes her confront what exactly motivates her. Bullmore is extremely good at not knowing what she thinks. She has a quick, fraught, bony nervousness, as she struggles to justify herself. You always know what she is thinking, even when she hasn't got a clue. Eventually, she realises: "It turned nasty because it was a silly, naive, half-baked idea." Her final gift to Strong - who is very good at registering his disbelief at how different she is - turns out to be a present to herself. This is a terrific play - humane, alarming and true.

If Pam Gems's biographical drama Stanley, about the life of Stanley Spencer, was a stage play that ought to have been a BBC2 drama, Nigel Williams's latest play (his second in two weeks) is a BBC2 film that ought not to have become a stage play. The Last Romantics is set in Cambridge between the wars and in 1968. A Glaswegian student (Tony Curran) turns up for tutorial with the literary critic F R Leavis. He witnesses the Leavises' marriage at close quarters, and precipitates an exploration of their unhappy relationship with Sir Arthur Quiller- Couch (Robert Langdon Lloyd) in the Twenties and Thirties. Mark Kingston looks the part as Leavis; his benign presence round the house will surprise anyone who thinks of Leavis (from his prose style) as a challengingly dogmatic figure. As the forbidding Mrs Leavis, Maggie Steed wanders in and out of the tutorial, with a washing basket under her arm. Here it is then: The Great Tradition meets The Common Pursuit.

Theatre details: see Going Out, page 14.