Theatre: Bedfellows in bedlam

THE GLORY OF LIVING

ROYAL COURT AT THE AMBASSADORS, LONDON

THE POTENTIAL trouble with American trailer-trash drama is that it will pander to an audience's worst impulses, inviting them on a tourist trip to a southern states bedlam where they can snigger, in safe superiority, at the morally subnormal. Rebecca Gilman's bracing, jet black comedy, The Glory of Living, never allows you that easy response, nor does Kathryn Hunter's production, which brilliantly reinforces the sense of casual shock.

We first meet 15-year-old Lisa (Monica Dolan) in her mother's mobile home chatting to Clint (Tony Curran), a jailbird twice her age. On the other side of a sheet strung across the room, his friend and her prostitute mother are having noisy sex. "She fakes it... she tole me," announces Lisa, an unstable cocktail of emotional damage, knee-hugging childishness and sullen precocity in Dolan's superb performance.

Then, in the space of about a minute's stage time, Clint and Lisa have stripped one another, climbed into a motel bed and been propelled a couple of years forward. They are now married; he's been in jail again; she's had twins. You are just recovering from this series of jolts, when there's another. They aren't alone. When Clint pulls up the handcuffed, unconscious body of an underage girl, it begins to dawn on you that Lisa is acting as his procuress and that when he needs to dispose of the evidence, he is careful to ensure that it's not his finger on the trigger.

Hunter's production moves with a darkly witty flow, the actors shifting scenes before your very eyes, as when a furious Clint simultaneously runs amok at being arrested and clears the set for the next episode. It is full of telling touches. For example, when Lisa decides to inform the police anonymously about the corpses, her message begins as a voice-over, and this sense that she is not so much behaving morally as obeying disassociated voices in her head is strikingly apt.

The play brings out the dreadful yet pitiable confusion inside her. One second she is refusing to cooperate with the police; the next, she is so naively flattered that they recorded her calls to them, that she's all perky helpfulness. She is the baffling product of a sleazy world where it's considered "nice and family-like" to be more than two to a bed, of bad children's homes and of crap TV culture where the kindest thing you can say about your murder victim is that she looked like Joanie from Happy Days.

Was Lisa free to refuse to do Clint's bidding if she had wanted? The evidence is conflicting. Certainly there is a bleak integrity about her in the later stages that is preferable to her partner's rattily macho, self-serving cunning, so well communicated in Mr Curran's performance. Only the tentatively humanising bond at the end between Lisa and her lawyer (Lorcan Cranitch) as he teaches her how to play "Jingle Bells" on her toy piano, struck the one false, sentimental note. The rest, from the spot-on cast to the evocative set with its doors dangling on telegraph wires, is unreservedly recommended.

To 6 Feb (0171-565 5000)

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