Opening night: Hurlyburly

Hurlyburly Old Vic, London
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The Independent Culture
In the programme to this English premiere production of Hurlyburly, Dominic Dromgoole notes that "few plays have had a more curious journey" to the stage than David Rabe's 1984 masterpiece. Particularly so, he claims, on this side of the Atlantic, where it has wound up in limbo, loved and admired by directors and actors who have done everything with it but actually produce it.

Even now, the play's progress persists in being picaresque, for as Wilson Milam's production moved, after two-and-three-quarter hours, into the final scene, the theatre had to be cleared because of a bomb scare. Assured that there was no possibility of its continuing, I made my way, along with a colleague and droves of other punters, to the Tube. We now have cause to kick ourselves.

True, people were never re-admitted to the theatre but, after 40 minutes, a proscenium arch show, set in a house in the Hollywood hills, was reassembled as an open-air, in-the-round staging using whatever resources were to hand in the square opposite the Old Vic. There's a line in the last scene where a drifting, bubble-headed bimbo character returns, saying, "I'm just happy to get off the streets at the moment". I bet, in the circumstances, that got a big laugh and a cheer.

But there was a great deal to laugh and cheer about before this accident brought the excellent cast and much reduced audience into an enhanced Dunkirk-spirit intimacy. The play takes a savagely funny look at men floundering in an age when the old codes and guidelines are being discarded and the men themselves thrown out of their marital security. Like Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, which opened in New York in the same year, Hurlyburly dramatises the mutual mistrust and competitiveness underlying macho camaraderie and the psychological cost of armoured defensiveness.

Eddie (Rupert Graves) and Mickey (Daniel Craig) are two divorced casting agents who share a home that seems to be a centre for a "wide variety of pharmaceutical experiments" (Eddie snorts and smokes breakfast), and for casual encounters with women, like Kelly MacDonald's balloon dancer, who are used as sex tools. For reasons which Mickey regards as fraudulent and self-serving, Eddie has befriended a third-division TV actor and ex- prisoner, Phil, a vest-wearing and tattooed mass of repressed violence, emotional frustration and pathetic dependency in Andrew Serkis's powerful performance. Stung by Mickey's charge that he only affects to like Phil because "no matter how far you manage to fall, Phil will be lower", Eddie is pushed to destroying Phil's highly precarious self-conviction, telling him that, to the TV people, "You're like a tree, Phil. You're like the location! They just use you to make the bullshit look legitimate."

What the play and Rupert Graves's fine performance reveal is that Eddie's cold, manipulative cockiness is a function of his searing self-disgust and - as is shown in the aftermath of Phil's suicide - he has, accordingly, more potential for involvement and protectiveness than the tidier-minded Mickey. A predominantly English cast get right into the idiom of the brilliant, drug-driven dialogue, with its ritualistic formulas (endless repetition of fillers like "Blah-blah-blah" and "Rapateeta") and the sheer musicality of its jargon-ridden paradoxical eloquence ("Your very 'now' is all, but not up to it" or "You are - I mean, a thousandfold - just utterly - and you fucking know it!", a line timed to off-hand perfection by Stephen Dillane's Artie). I may not have seen this production in its entirety, but I fully recommend it.

In rep to 21 April (0171-928 7616)

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