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Theatre: All right on the knights

THE PUN-INTENDED title of Paul Corcoran's debut comedy about the four knights who assassinated Thomas a Becket in 1170 is as wince-making as a Sun headline. Let yourself be put off by it, though, and you'll miss out on a ribaldly anachronistic version of history that is no more subtle but far funnier.

Reginald FitzUrse, William de Traci, Richard le Bret and Hugh de Morville are spied at four points during their year-long hideout in Knaresborough Castle, Yorkshire. Commanded by Henry II to "seek penitent obscurity", this unrepentant quartet passes the time in boarding-school humour. Instead of fasting and prayer, there's a daily diet of moaning, bickering, smut, homosexual cravings, madness and lashings of 12th-century savagery.

Life as a secondary-school teacher must have given Corcoran a wealth of material to draw on, but other influences are also apparent: Blackadder in particular, the Carry On films in general. You could also argue that it more often resembles a pilot sitcom than a play. Yet with the Archbishop of Canterbury branded a "complete and utter fuckwit", Murder in the Cathedral it ain't.

But, setting aside the fact that TV wouldn't tolerate the swearing, it would be a mistake to dismiss this as imitative small-screen fare. The exuberant filth is part of a serio-comical siege against certainty. Lines such as "What an almighty fuck-up this is" may seem lazy, but Corcoran deploys them so that the knights seem both stressed-out products of Nineties' lad culture, and oddly true to their own rough age.

If Corcoran doesn't quite succeed in bringing various ideas about free will and male love to the boil, his act of imaginative trespass is so well served by Richard Wilson's beautifully paced production, you hardly care. Weighted with armour, tunics and boots, the actors strut around a gloomy castle, mustering peacockish assurance as easily as moping defeat. Gruesome details of medieval life are lovingly realised, most treasurably when Mali Harries's no-nonsense serving-woman yanks a tooth from the bleeding gums of Brito, Jonny Lee Miller's sensitive stud, with giant pliers. In a strong cast, Christopher Fulford endears himself as Brito's surrogate father and would-be lover, but it is the former Trainspotting star's alluringly intelligent presence that makes his the knight you'll remember.

Dominic Cavendish

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