THEATRE / Bringing the house down: Paul Taylor reviews The Lodger at Hampstead Theatre

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Even more so than The Birthday Party, Simon Burke's The Lodger is not a play for anyone thinking of letting rooms. This 1992 Mobil Prizewinner opens with an edgy bout of mutual suspicion between a prospective tenant and the man who might consent to rent her a cruddy 12 by 10 in a house that yells the lack of a woman's touch and eventually resounds to a woman's yelling.

It's a drama that spends a lot of time keeping you in the dark about people who, to different degrees, are kept in the dark about each other. All the same, I'd somehow managed to work out well before they did the fact that Philip Jackson's affection-hungry landlord, Wise - a homely, estranged type, on the way past his sell-by date - is also a plainclothes CID officer, and that Julia Ford, excellent as the pert, lippy, uptight and obscurely vulnerable Lois, is a whore on the run from her pimp.

Given that you'd expect such a pair to be able to smell one another a mile off, no matter how screwed up they were feeling, it suggests that this play is lumbered with an implausible premise. In fact, it becomes apparent that The Lodger works best not as an accurate comment on life but as a sharp, if somewhat mechanical, exercise in style. The clever dialogue bristles with the bantering bravado and quick, cynical retorts of people disguising their insecurity; the overall tone is detached, knowing, half in love with the hard-boiled amorality it professes to be examing.

The pimp (Mark Womack), an elfin scumbag with a smart line in toxic whimsy, succeeds in tracking down Lois, installs himself as a second lodger, and forces her back on the game, the house of the unwitting copper turned into an impromptu knocking shop. It doesn't lessen the complications that Wise falls in love with Lois or that she has propositioned his colleague, Reed (Matthew Marsh), who is bent, hard-bitten and consequently high-flying.

Shaping its material into dodgy symmetries, the play produces, at length, a facile contrast. Better to be a whore or pimp, we gather, than the sort of authority figure who shuts down hospitals or perverts the course of justice. Well, maybe. The trouble is that this pimp and this whore seem far too bright and mettlesome to be covered by Burke's vague definition of victimhood. As for Wise, we cannot judge whether he is a victim or not without a flashback to his life with the promiscuous spouse he used to beat up.

On the level of generalisation, then, the play is distinctly shaky. As Richard Wilson's wittily staged, beautifully acted production demonstrates, its strength lies in its black humour. 'Yorkshire - home of puddings and rippers,' muses Lois, indicating that the husband she wed there 'was a cross between the two'.

Quizzed as to whether he is married, the corrupt Reed answers, with the sort of intimidating cynicism Burke's script revels in, 'hard to tell'. As in Pinter, but less clipped or elliptical, all conversation here is a power game. To unnerve, the pimp likes deliberately mixing cliches: 'Trojan horse, gift horse or dead horse - that's the question?' The play, though, is a clothes horse - for Burke's designer dialogue.

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