THEATRE / Fair cop: Jeffrey Wainwright on The Lodger, Manchester

It is to be hoped that the small English town that is the setting for Simon Burke's Mobil Prize-winning new play is unusually unfortunate in its constabulary, or we are in worse trouble than we thought. It's hard to know whether to be more alarmed by Reed, a cynical youngish detective, or his colleague Wise, who takes in as lodgers first a whore and then her pimp and ends up with his own number on cards in every phone box in town. Even tracking the action at a very steady plod we had Lois sussed from the start, and as soon an the wise-cracking Pollock - 'like the fish' - puts down his suitcase we can tell he's a slimeball even before he starts cosying his switch-blade up to her nose.

It's love that makes Wise so dumb - or sex, since, as Pollock says, he has to take what he's given. Even before Lois turns up he's in pursuit of it via a computer date, presenting himself quite touchingly in his white shirt and blazer to a schoolteacher who makes an excuse and an early escape. At this point we don't know he's in the CID, though he's been evasive enough for us to guess he must be up to no good.

Nevertheless the first half retains interest both because the slow set-up leaves everything to play for, and because of some sharp, stylised dialogue rich in one-liners and well delivered under Richard Wilson's direction. In the first scene Philip Jackson's Wise, weighed down by the ill-fitting trousers that sag round his hips and with his head tugged involuntarily forward by an unkempt forelock, is far too ponderous for the sexy, undeceived patina of Julia Ford's Lois. She 'got her emotions out of the way early', she tells him - she was once in love with herself but found they were incompatible.

Simon Burke has so much of a talent for hard-boiled bons mots, he likes to spread them around: asked if he's married, Reed replies: 'hard to tell', and Pollock (Mark Womack) rues not taking the plastic bag Lois was carrying when they first met instead of her. A darker shade of noir is what the author is after.

Dark it may be, but deep it isn't. The long anticipated nastiness turns out neither surprising nor theatrically exciting, and the twist at the end would embarrass a puppy- dog's tail. Tame and uninventive, The Lodger is quite without resonance on any other level. Yes, its point is that the real villains are not desperate, victimised whores, or even unlovely drug-pushing pimps despairing at how to fill their seventy years, but those who rig evidence, cover up, close hospitals . . . But this is hardly a dizzying intellectual discovery, and the main dramatic challenge it involves - to render some sympathetic depth to the tantalisingly intelligent Pollock - is barely taken up.

Despite Simon Burke's claims in the programme to the contrary, there is nothing in word, characterisation, theme or excitement here that is not routinely provided by television and film. As he rightly says, theatre must do something else and something more. It is amazing that an international play competition of the scale of the Mobil could not find such theatre to honour with its award.

At the Royal Exchange, Manchester until 26 February (Box office: 061-833 9833).

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