THEATRE / Close to their art: Paul Taylor on Colquhoun and MacBride

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THE TWO Ronnies we've all heard of, but mention of the Two Roberts (as they were called) is unlikely to ring many bells these days. Aiming to put that right, John Byrne's new play Colquhoun and MacBride takes us on a brisk tour of the rowdy, well-lubricated lives of these two Scottish painters, who met at the Glasgow School of Art and then went on to become partners (or even 'a single organism' as one critic purply put it) in love, art and assiduous alcohol abuse.

Beginning in 1937 with the boys just five weeks out of art school, the play - which progresses in bitty, short-winded scenes - follows the pair through their early struggle for recognition, carousings in war-time Fitzrovia and Soho, success in Bond Street and the pages of Picture Post, and a drawn-out decline brought on, it seems, by too much booze and the swing in taste away from romantic lyricism towards American-influenced Abstract Expressionism. In 1957, when the play ends, a Jackson Pollock has just sold for well over dollars 1m, while on the horizon for our heroes are an exhibition in Huddersfield and a breach of the peace charge.

Performed with a wonderful earthy comic vigour by David O'Hara and Ken Stott in the title roles, the play, alas, amounts to a collection of good lines in desperate need of a stronger through-line. Hopping restlessly forward, it flirts with quite a few themes (the guilt of the civilian artist in wartime; anti-gay prejudice; the Celt as cultural outsider; living down to one's legend, etc) but it never gets on to the heavy petting stage with any of them, still less develop a steady, monogamous relationship. The problem also stems partly from the fact that, whereas it's all too easy to show people getting drunk and self-destructive on stage, it's well-nigh impossible to dramatise artistic creativity, so the key paradox referred to in the publicity leaflet that 'Their genius was both served and subverted by their lust for life' receives somewhat lopsided treatment.

The pitfalls of the bio-play are at times left zestfully unskirted. Barely have the boys put their canvasses down in their first London studio, than a plastered Dylan Thomas is lurching over the threshold and vomiting into a bucket of beer provided by the Polish artist, Jankel Adler. A glass of the resulting carrot-enriched concoction is later offered to an unwitting George Barker. Ah, la vie de boheme, quelle splendeur. Played by a man in drag, Muriel Belcher of the Colony Club puts in a cameo that more than reconciles you to never having made this lady's acquaintance.

Lindsay Posner's production (which is designed with an attractive minimalist flair by the author) has a tough time supplying any illusion of momentum and some of the performances around the central duo are a bit rough. What it faithfully transmits, though, is the good humoured, tolerant spirit of a piece which seems almost to take itself by surprise when it turns latterly into a dark-hued cautionary tale.

Continues at the Royal Court, SW1 (071-730 1745)