THEATRE / A stick of Brighton rock: Paul Taylor reviews Danny Miller's comedy of gay Catholic gangland, Jack's Out, at the Bush

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The Independent Culture
IT MIGHT seem a touch presumptuous - however doctrinally sound - to subject the Almighty to a man-to-Man chat, but the central character in Jack's Out, a patchily entertaining first play by Danny Miller, mounted now at The Bush, buttonholes his Maker in a form of prayer you could only describe as a gangster-to-Gangster confab. To Frankie, as he kneels in church fingering his rosary beads, God is 'the Big Brief', the 'Capo di Tutti Capi' and, being a misogynist and a homosexual, Frankie feels bound to compliment the Lord in his good sense in not wanting women 'in the firm' (why, give them an inch and they'd be at the stained-glass windows 'trying to air the place').

But the real 'beauty of (His) set-up', Frankie informs God, is that limitless forgiveness clause: however naughty he's been, he can always repent and be welcomed back to the bosom of the Church. This assurance that he'll get a sympathetic hearing seems to have got slightly warped, though, and encouraged Frankie to talk to God as one experienced deviant to another. 'You know how it is at a party,' he declares familiarly, 'you're laughing, dancing, and before you know where you are, you've cut someone's face open'. By the end of the play, with Frankie muttering panicky Our Fathers and Hail Marys at gunpoint, it looks as though the Lord and he will shortly be able to compare their respective police records at closer quarters.

John Challis gives a splendidly funny performance as Frankie in Ken McClymont's Bush production. He manages to induce a frisson (with his scars, his stage villain's lurid cackle, and his sinister, predatory manner) and to elicit a good few belly-laughs with his faint but ridiculous perviness. You feel that here is a man who, after relieving an enemy of his balls, might unwind by doing a floral arrangement for the high altar, or by trying to deflower a choirboy. It's no reflection on the other actors, but a weakness of the play, that the life drains out of the drama when he is absent.

Though the eponymous Jack only appears on the scene right at the end, as a set of headlights on the road outside, Miller's play looks at how the release of this murderer from prison, eight years earlier than expected, affects a group of his male friends and acquaintances who are all involved in the shadier end of the Brighton antiques trade, or worse. Whether by sleeping with his girlfriend, or failing to keep up with protection payments, or by grassing on him in the first place, each has something to fear from Jack's liberty. The play looks at the way Frankie, by pressing on the fears of nervy wideboy Jules (spot-on Kieron Forsyth), tries to manoeuvre things so that Jules's best friend, good-looking 'Lover Boy' Luke (James Clyde), cops it for all of them. 'It's the righteous thing to do,' claims Frankie, arguing that making people scapegoats was given the green light by 'your man on the cross'.

Some of the dialogue shows a fine ear for the needlings and power jostlings of male conversation, and Miller certainly knows how to pace a gag that takes time to reach its pay-off. But Jack's (and now Luke's) girlfriend, Bobbie (Georgiana Dacombe), is a puzzling non-entity. When she's discovered dead, you want to object that she never existed in the first place. The attempts to say something general about men and fear don't, on the whole, come off either. The bits that are good are very good, though, and give notice of a talent to watch.

The Bush Theatre, London W12 (081-743 3388).