THEATRE / Pack your bags for a trip to Greeneland: Paul Taylor reviews Trunks at the Lyric Studio and Clare Bayley reviews 900 Oneonta at the Old Vic

When a play is entitled Trunks, you might suppose you were in for some elephantine farce involving mixed-up bathing drawers and crossed-wire long-distance phone calls. With Shaker Productions' splendid staging of this new Stephen Plaice piece, you'd be warmer thinking of luggage and lopped torsos. Atmospherically directed by Alison Edgar, the drama offers an impressionistic, creepily comic reconstruction of the Brighton Trunk Murders of 1934, a year when, by macabre coincidence, two murdered females were found in the seaside town thus inelegantly packaged.

One was a pregnant woman, never identified; the other was Violette Kaye, a prostitute and common-law wife to her much younger pimp, Tony Mancini, a small-time hustler with ridiculously big ideas of himself. Murdering her in a fit of temper, he maintained at his trial that she had been the victim of a client. After a lucky acquittal, he cynically capitalised on his notoriety by becoming a fairground attraction, sawing females in half 'in the very trunk where he cooped up his lady of leisure'. In Plaice's play, Tony recreates his seedy story, assisted by the posthumous, irrepressible Vi, an ironic double-act that attests to his claim that he lives with her more now than when she was alive.

With restless trunk lids chattering like gossips, and a forest of newspapers nervily shaking when the first crime is reported, Edgar's staging gives the piece a blackly comic nightmare feel. Using the barest of means (a dusty railway window, a platform walkway), she also imparts a powerful Graham Greene-ish sense of a raffish resort and its sleazy underworld of petty gangsters, prostitutes, fascists and back-street abortionists.

Plaice twists the material into patterns that make you lose your moral bearings. Tony is chased by a bent copper who sympathises with Mosley's mob and had been one of Vi's customers, putting the cost of his whoring on police expenses. He's defended by a barrister who detests him, but who recognises in Tony a fellow-spirit, a clever con man like himself with the acting talent to bluff his way to triumph in court. He's then acquitted, the play alleges, because the upper-class judiciary reckon, pervertedly, that Vi got her just deserts for giving men pleasure.

You may feel that some of these points are pretty tendentious. What you can't deny, though, is the strength of the central performances. Gregor Truter as the snappily dressed Tony projects brilliantly the youth's flip, cocky, predatoriness and underlying insecurity. When he moves in on girls, there's a knowing, humourless quality to his hooded-eyed, cut-price allure which disarms some of them. Not that he can put any real distance on this flimsy persona. What binds him to Vi, you see from his relationship with Ruth Burton's quite superbly portrayed prostitute, is that they are both incorrigible fantasists.

Diminutive, peroxided, older than she looks at first glance, Vi is prone to smiling with coy, dazzlingly radiant self-delusion as when, newly dead and just emerged from the trunk, she tells Tony to put off her sister's imminent visit with a telegram announcing that she's gone abroad to a fancy new job. If only people could see inside her, her smile seems to say, they'd realise what an upstanding, respectable soul she was. It's a haunting sight in an admirably stylish show. PT

SET IN the home of an overwrought, Southern American, oil-rich family which is riddled with every manner of sexual, social and addiction problem, 900 Oneonta tempts one to compare its writer, David Beaird, to Tennessee Williams or Eugene O'Neill. But any comparison can only be negative. The writing lacks the compassion of O'Neill and the emancipating qualities of Williams, while the afflictions suffered by each of the characters is so extreme that it's hard - perhaps impossible - to take them seriously. None the less, in spite of the gales of audience laughter, there lingers a suspicion that as a writer he has more serious aspirations for the play than emerge in his own production. On more than one occasion a character proclaims, 'I am America]', and one senses a metaphor struggling to emerge.

The lights go up to a clap of thunder and the old patriarch, Dandy, sprawled on the colonial-style drawing-room floor, laughing at his own infirmity. He has heard the trumpet of the angel of death, yet staggers to his feet to embark on a relentless quest for 'truth' in his final hours. 'Today we're gonna say it all,' he promises, and he isn't joking.

He begins by revealing that the 'little nigger whore' living with his son is the black maid's niece. He then progresses to his feckless daughter, whom he advises, 'that twat of yours is prime real-estate'. In the absence of his morphine-addicted wife or his alcoholic daughter, he turns his attentions to his sons, the hell-raising addict Tiger and his holier-than-thou brother Gitlo.

With the emotional pyrotechnics and Beaird's iron-clad structuring devices (almost every scene has a metaphorically ticking clock on it), there is plenty of opportunity for actors to shine. Leland Crooke's performance as Dandy is spectacular and uncomfortable. Jon Cryer gives some wonderfully fanciful skips, shrugs and mid-air leaps as Gitlo, impotent in rage and craven in adversity, and Ben Daniels matches the strength of the performance as the raving Tiger. In the less verbose roles, the rest of the cast do well not to be completely swamped, especially Susan Tracy as Persia and Angela Bruce as the down-to-earth maid.

If it's sheer quantity of language you're after, 900 Oneonta is for you. The words just tumble on out, in great, dirty torrents, saturated with the misogyny and racism which is the Deep South's heritage. Beaird's pounding syntax is initially exhilarating, and he is a master of the devastating drop-line. But with everything said and nothing left to the imagination, the effect is ultimately deadening. Dandy's philosophy, that the truth, if spoken, heals, is a misconception. Words alone are not enough. CB

'Trunks' runs to 30 July, Lyric Studio, London W6 (Booking: 081-741 8701)

'900 Oneonta' at the Old Vic, London SE1 (Booking: 071-928 7616)

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