Bones, Hampstead Theatre, London

A brilliant black comedy
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The Independent Culture

A riotous black comedy in the vein of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Peter Straughan's Bones also concerns a group of morons who are over-optimistic about their ability to manage a psychopath. This earlier play (premiered in Newcastle in 1999) lacks the political dimension of Martin McDonagh's IRA satire. But Bones deals with a personal tragedy which is now a serious social problem: the angry, confused, fatherless boys who can affirm their manhood only by dealing death.

But such reflections appear long after one has stopped laughing at the misadventures of the mooncalf Moon, the unthinking Ruben, and Beck who, having done three months for shoplifting, fancies himself a kingpin of crime. In the Gates-head of the early Sixties, the three work at a decrepit porn cinema whose owner – Ruben's half-brother, Benny – is dangerously behind with his extortion payments. But Ruben conceives a scheme that will solve all their problems: they will kidnap Reggie Kray.

Straughan's jokes are based on the premises one would expect: the contrast between the men's boasting and their timidity; their hypersensitivity under pressure; the distance between the grandiose plot and its feeble execution. Having abducted Reggie without thinking how to make a ransom demand, Ruben resorts to the telephone directory. Benny is appalled to hear that there are 45 Krays. "You're going to ring them all? On my phone bill? I'm gonna be the only kidnapper in history who loses money on the deal."

But the darker strand of the play is more disturbing than the presence of Kray, a bound and raging bull. (Even tied to a chair, David Cardy, louche lips curled in disgust, exudes lethal menace.) Ruben, mistreated by his father and resentful of his older, cleverer, tougher brother, consoles himself by pretending to be an Italian with a gangster father, and, when alone with Kray, reverses the usual victim-captor romance, craving his approval. As Kray humours him, we can see that the inevitable, sickening end will emerge from Ruben's desperate need to prove his worth.

Straughan can be a bit over-explicit or push a joke too hard. But, as Max Roberts's exuberant production shows, this is a writer of tremendous force, who can write parts that actors will fight to play. Praise to the Live Theatre, Newcastle for developing his talent.

To 13 April (020-7722 9301)

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