THEATRE / A man of war: Paul Taylor reviews The Misogynist at the Bush Theatre

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The Independent Culture
OVERHEARD in Edinburgh this summer: a well-known cartoonist waxing homicidal over a national theatre critic whose rave review had inspired him to go along and see Tom Hickey's solo performance as The Misogynist. Evidently, he had not enjoyed himself. There were reports, too, of huffy people walking out of the show, hotly and volubly pursued by its logorrhoeic cast-of-one.

Watching the piece now in London suggests: a) that these premature exiters clearly hadn't experienced any of the weaker items in the C P Taylor retrospective up there; and b) that both the reviewer's and the cartoonist's reactions say less about the work itself than they do about the workings of Festival fever, which tends to keep every needle at one or other extreme of the critical gauge.

In London's calmer climate, The Misogynist comes across as a splendidly acted piece about a man frenetically scuttling around a private, labyrinthine fantasy world, his potty paranoia about female incursions eventually darkening into something altogether madder and more murderous. The effect, however, is nowhere near as disturbing as you might expect. This Irish play, written and directed by Michael Harding, seems primarily concerned to show off Hickey's brilliant technique rather than to lay bare the misogynist mind. Though it's not unrevealing on this score, the latter activity feels like a pretext for the former.

As Harding discloses in a programme note, the intention was to get away from the stereotype Irish stage bully 'who expresses his misogyny in heroic violence'. Silver- haired, pasty-fleshed, peering over his spectacles in a prissily scandalised manner, Hickey incarnates the alternative - a puffed-up little man driven to deranged rituals of rejection and revulsion by his fear of female encroachment. 'Did she send you here?' he asks a party of latecomers, and every so often he tries to surprise the females he imagines lurking behind the set ('They're everywhere, you know') by kicking open the door and running amok in pursuit of them like some demented, headless chicken.

At the centre of his ravings is an episode (obsessively harked back to) in which he claims to have found a cleaning woman raising a chalice. This sacrilegious usurping of a male prerogative is followed by insane cadenzas of paranoid suspicion. He's rattled and flustered, but he'd like to give the impression that there is more to him than meets the eye. 'Who am I?' he keeps asking, with a manic wheezy laugh. Until he is revealed to be a pathetic, poisonous creature, he keeps trying to buttress all these face-saving rituals by switching identity and pulling rank on the previous persona adopted. Clearly regarding the Bible as a calming source book of male solidarity, he also has constant proprietorial recourse to scripture: 'For He will preserve us from all our adversaries and smite the fuck out of all our enemies' is the sort of thing he intones, with many a bent knee and outstretched arm, as though God was God's gift to chauvinism.

Via a barking mad discourse on the New Man and a spate of hilariously sudden and lunatic martial arts poses, the drama gradually sobers up to show the protagonist's irrational fear warping into a determination to hurt first. The humour of the piece is very wacko and quick (at one point, you get a split-second flash of a copy of the Sunday Press with a headline about Bishop Casey, a cleric who had no problem with women). It's just a shame that the moral shock administered by this tour de force of performance skills is not commensurately deep.

To 10 October at the Bush Theatre, London W12 (081-743 3388)

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