First Night: The Six Wives Of Timothy Leary, Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, West London

Drop in, stay tuned, be impressed: finally, justice to the 'king of acid'
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The Independent Culture

To date, Hollywood script-writers seem to have been defeated by the life of Timothy Leary, the acid guru who preached the spiritual benefits of LSD and coined the phrase "turn on, tune in, drop out". Perhaps his improbably colourful CV leaves them spoiled for choice as to where to put the emphasis.

Sacked Harvard psychologist, escaped jailbird, "stand-up philosopher" and one of the first people to have their remains launched into outer space – there are so many irresistibly weird vantage points to pick from. Those range from his time as a fugitive in Algeria, under the bizarre watch of the Black Panther government-in-exile, to his double act on the lecture circuit with fellow ex-con, G Gordon Liddy, the very man who had arrested Leary for marijuana possession only to become notorious in turn for his part in the Watergate burglary.

Philip de Gouveia's wittily accomplished first play strives to solve the problem of overabundance and perspective by keeping the central figure offstage. Leary's story is filtered through the six main women who shared his life. They each deliver a monologue, with linking fictional scenes at his wake where they are curious to see what attributes (if any) they have in common and where they find a bond in their ambivalent but incorrigible attachment to this dangerously compelling maverick.

Spanning four decades, the piece catches the women at revealingly angled moments – the shifting contexts differentiated with crisp clarity in Timothy Hughes' assured, expertly acted production. Not all of these episodes yield surprises. Flower-child Rosemary (Charlotte Donachie) spouts more or less what you'd expect in her fundraising address at a "Free Timothy Leary" rally. But other vignettes are cunningly titled. Swedish Vogue model, Nena (an excellent Anna Brook) is heard fielding queries from a lover who evidently nurses such a jealous curiosity about her past that it's detrimental to their present relationship.

Her sharp observations on the downside of the Leary idyll (acid, she declares, offers "a pretend religious experience, just by flipping a switch, without earning it") will not be enough, you reckon, to appease his unhealthy obsession.

The mood becomes a tad mawkish towards the end, but the play skilfully communicates the piquant contradictions of a resilient life-giver who left a string of casualties in his wake. Hetty Abbott is bewitching as the beautiful, brittle Marianne, the wife who committed suicide and who is seen here tipsily flirting at a faculty party in revenge for her husband's philandering on the other side of the room. By and large, the play achieves a satisfying balance between sceptical comedy ("I checked in my diary and I did actually love the cunt once") and bruised wonder. The diverting production will visit this year's Edinburgh Fringe: drop by, turn on, stay tuned.

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