Plastic bullets

THEATRE Popcorn Apollo Shaftesbury, London
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The Independent Culture
The idea that a movie on the lines of Natural Born Killers would ever win the Oscars is about as likely as the Evening Standard Award for Best Play going to Shopping and Fucking. You're prepared to overlook that initial implausibility, though, because Ben Elton's Popcorn, transferred now with improved casting to the West End, builds into such an enjoyable, intelligent, thought-provoking play. Watching Laurence Boswell's production for a second time, I still, however, think that theatre does not convey Elton's material as well as does the novel version he wrote at the same time. And I'm still certain that film is its logical destination.

The piece is a sharp satire on the culture of victimhood in the US - that compulsion to blame someone else and offload responsibility which Elton pushes to a piquant reductio ad absurdum by having two young psychotic killers invade the Hollywood home of Bruce Delamitri (Danny Webb), a Tarantino / Stone- type director on the morning after he has won an Oscar for an "ironic", post-modern, sexually glamorising movie about two young psychotic killers. Along with the Playboy centrefold (Megan Dodds) he picked up at the awards party and his soon-to-be-ex-wife and daughter, Bruce is held hostage at gunpoint and forced to go before the TV cameras to address his alleged responsibility for their crimes.

The murderous pair are beautifully played. Patrick O'Kane gives an electrifying performance as drawling, gum-chewing white-trash Wayne. Violence makes this denimed brute so horny and full of himself the effect is comic and he swaggers and leaps around in bare chest and waistcoat as though creating mayhem were a form of rock 'n' roll. He's lethal and ludicrous, bone-headed and intermittently shrewd. As Scout, his waif of a sidekick, excellent Dena Davis veers between gigglingly naive, starry-eyed awe at having entered a celebrity home and efficient, unsmiling ruthlessness. It's a great running joke that this girl should see no inconsistency between being a mass murderer and her forlorn, priggish aspirations to gentility. She objects to being kissed in a public place but doesn't mind at all that Wayne makes it a private one by gunning down everyone that's there.

I like the way the play even-handedly allows this pair to score semi- inadvertent points off Bruce and the slick moral vacuity of his film-making style. Told that the New York Times found one of the movies ironic and subversive, Wayne drawls: "I just thought it was classy the way they keep on wasting people" and he suggests that, on the upfront analogy of Four Weddings and a Funeral, it could have been called "57 Murders, Plus People Taking Drugs and Fucking".

"Popcorn Cited in Copycat Killings Case": an unlikely headline, to be sure. West End drama can, God knows, be accused of many things but inspiring imitative violence is not one of them. You could argue that the fact that there is next to no risk of this happening is one of the reasons why the theatre is not the best medium for this material. The violence in Boswell's production is still curiously unaffecting, stagey and contained (you can't begin to believe in the supposedly desperate state of the shot centrefold and the scene in which Wayne guns down a crowd is, of necessity, a bloodless notional business with sound effects). Some reviewers of the Nottingham premiere remarked that the play is knowing about its own double standards. My point remains that these layers of self-implication will only have the right dangerous charge if and when Popcorn hits the big screen.

Booking: 0171-494 5070 Paul Taylor

Correction: the part of Lord Darlington in 'Lady Windermere's Fan' (Theatre Royal, London) was played by Simon Robson, and not Simon Dutton as stated in our review yesterday. Our apologies to both Simons for the confusion.