The best of time, the worst of time THEATRE

The Present The Bush, London
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The Independent Culture
You could say that while the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs hosts the bad girls Judy Upton and Sarah Kane with their troubling analyses of aggression and violence - the Bush is busy championing the bad boys, with its "Walk on the Wild Side" season. The first in the season, Tracy Letts's stunning shocker Killer Joe, punched its way into the West End; and now Nick Ward's The Present slithers in, a study this time not of physical violence, but of disturbed sexual psychology.

Ward's weird but thoroughly mesmerising play could be subtitled "a cautionary tale for backpackers". In 1980, at the time of John Lennon's murder, Danny, a gawky 18-year-old, goes visiting his mother's relatives in Australia and finds himself on a spectacular voyage of self-discovery. After an ill-advised fumble with the daughter of the house, he runs away, convinced that he has killed her. Has he? Or is this just a violent sexual fantasy in his head? Has he, in fact, dreamed the whole thing? We never really know, but his flight plays him into the hands of a bizarre threesome on the fringes of the art world, who make him their plaything.

He is picked up in a bar by Michael, a con man of the first order, who gives him a bed and a job as a bogus artist, selling fake works of art door to door. Michael impresses Danny with his recycled gobbets of Nietzschean philosophy, particularly the doctrine of eternal return "that all the life-changing moments we live return an infinite number of times", an idea that Ward pursues in the play's structure. We notice, however, that Michael also identifies strongly with Nietzsche's misogyny and his veneration of the powerful. He surrounds himself with mutilated sculptures of the female form, and toys with Danny like a cat with a fledgling.

But just as Danny is learning to negotiate the terrifying mind games that Michael plays, into the picture come Libby, the sculptress who initiated him sexually at the age of 14, and her confrontational bisexual flatmate, Becky. As the three manipulate him, forcing him to relive the moment from which he is running, it is never clear whether they are real or whether the whole thing is an extended fantasy in which sex, violence and power constantly resurface in different guises. Into this dream-like atmosphere Ward introduces ideas about time and about the complex texture of the present, ideas summed up wittily in concrete form at Danny's birthday party, when Michael makes him a present of a boomerang.

Ward himself directs with great style and precision to screw every ounce of menace and drop of black humour out of his script, and to draw excellent performances from the cast.

Christopher Simon is wonderfully sinister as the predatory Michael, while Susan Vidler is disturbingly detached as Libby and Katrin Cartridge is frighteningly unpredictable as Becky. Best of all, however, is Ewen Bremner's funny, touching performance as Danny, the awkward innocent, struggling to stay cool in the face of his terrifying hosts and to find a foothold in this slippery, uncomfortable world.

It is a compelling piece of writing, expertly performed. Quite where it all leads, however, is hard to say - you'd do better to surrender to its strange, seductive charm than to try and take home a meaning.

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