On the fringe

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The Independent Culture
Imagine the temptation: it is 20 July 1969, and you are the astronaut Buzz Aldrin, shortly to step on to the lunar surface. Ahead of you is Neil Armstrong. Wouldn't you at least put up a fight to get to the door before him? "I mean," as a character in Mad Dog Killer Leper Fiend (Man in the Moon) says, "what is the point of being the second person on the Moon?" Andy Warhol doesn't appear in Tim Plester's fascinating but flawed take on how the Sixties went sour. But his 15-minutes-of-fame dictum is never far from the surface. Mad Dog bubbles with that decade's corrosive desire for instant gratification and self-dramatisation.

It's a quirk of history that in the summer of 1969 the first moon-landing, Woodstock and the Charles Manson murders all took place in a three-week period. Given a well-cast, well-acted production by Robert Pepper, Plester's play suggests how these events were connected.

On 8 August, Manson tortured and killed five people at the Hollywood home of the actress Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski's wife. Tate herself was stabbed 16 times while pregnant. Mad Dog is set inside that Bel Air mansion, although the names have been slightly changed. Tate, for example, has become Sharon Marie, and the coffee heiress Abigail Folger has become Gibby. There's no Manson, either. In his place, an astronaut, still dressed in his space suit, storms into Sharon's poolside retreat. It's a strikingly visual coup de theatre: having set up the audience for a documentary, the play offers them the man who fell to earth.

Yet despite his rough manners, southern drawl and a habit of talking about an encounter with aliens, Mr Spaceman doesn't seem that out of place. His behaviour is no more weird than Pawel, Gibby's Eastern European boyfriend. High on mescalin, he is convinced that the watermelon he carries around with him possesses vegetable magic.

This gets to the heart of the play. What Plester's languid, funny, if sometimes foggy script is interested in is a culture where wilful unreason, fuelled by pop culture, has become endemic. When Thomas, a celebrity hairdresser who fancies himself as a bit of a rationalist, challenges the spaceman's account of his abduction by aliens, he finds himself resorting to a conspiracy theory: maybe Nasa never went to the moon anyway, maybe they just filmed it all in the desert.

Plester (as befits a writer who has worked with Sarah Blasted Kane and Mark Shopping and Fucking Ravenhill) pulls no punches with his rough-hewn, shocking conclusion. We're left in no doubt that Sharon, Gibby, Pawel and Thomas are complicit in the violence that ends the play. And, by horrible implication, the real Sharon Tate and friends were complicit in their own deaths. Plester is a genuine talent, though you might feel differently if you were one of the victims' relatives.

The symbiotic relationship between victim and criminal is also to the fore in Nicola McCartney's patchily inspired date-rape drama Easy (BAC). Performed by Glasgow's promising LookOut company, it's a kind of British answer to David Mamet's Oleanna.

Elaine and Martin have been married a year and, to celebrate, have invited over Elaine's best friend, the cabaret singer Rachel, and Martin's boss, Paul. The two guests flirt relentlessly. What follows is an evening of heavy-drinking and a violent argument between Elaine and Martin, that sees them storm out of the house. The next morning, Rachel tells Elaine that Paul raped her. Elaine is not only reluctant to believe her friend, but later embarks on an affair with Paul.

Some of the writing in Easy is quite static, but the play bursts into life during the central party scene in which McCartney picks at her characters' half-hidden desires and frustrations with all the glee of a child plucking off a spider's legs. It's brilliantly staged - choreographed almost - by McCartney herself, while Astrid Azurdia's performance as the increasingly whisky-sodden Elaine is alone worth the price of a ticket.

The play's central polemic is harder to evaluate. Easy presents an exceptionally gloomy view of modern sexual relationships. Men are like Martin, simultaneously ineffectual and bullying to his wife, a control freak with a footballer's perm and an alphabetically arranged CD collection. Or they are like Paul, charismatic, kindly to children, but ultimately a rapist.

Women don't come out of it much better. The play stops short of suggesting that Rachel was complicit in her own rape. But it does suggest that women are complicit in giving men the wrong signals. Like Elaine, they can't decide whether they want a Martin or a Paul. And whether you're convinced by that is less to do with critical judgement and more to do with personal belief.

'Mad Dog Killer Leper Fiend' to 24 May at the Man in the Moon, London SW3 (0171-351 2876); 'Easy' to 18 May at BAC, London SW11 (0171-223 2223) Adrian Turpin