Forty Winks, Royal Court, London

A nod in the right direction
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The Independent Culture

Kevin Elyot is a master-manipulator of stage time. His plays rarely unfold in chronological sequence and even when they do, as in his biggest hit, My Night With Reg, it's with a highly distinctive twist. Instead, he rearranges and dislocates events with a true theatrical poet's touch, so as to heighten - through transposition - our sense of emotional cause and effect and to underline those recurring patterns of psychic arrest (usually caused by the yearning, unreciprocated romantic love of one male for another) that can hold an entire existence in thrall.

Kevin Elyot is a master-manipulator of stage time. His plays rarely unfold in chronological sequence and even when they do, as in his biggest hit, My Night With Reg, it's with a highly distinctive twist. Instead, he rearranges and dislocates events with a true theatrical poet's touch, so as to heighten - through transposition - our sense of emotional cause and effect and to underline those recurring patterns of psychic arrest (usually caused by the yearning, unreciprocated romantic love of one male for another) that can hold an entire existence in thrall.

Premiered now in Katie Mitchell's beautifully cast production at the Royal Court, his haunting new 70-minute play, Forty Winks, gives these preoccupations and tics of technique a fresh airing. Of his previous pieces, it is closest to The Day I Stood Still. As that title indicates, this was a drama that eventually alighted on the day in youth that fixed the hero's emotional life. In Forty Winks, the might-have-been relationship on which the protagonist Don has become permanently stuck is heterosexual and has left him constantly on the move round the world. It's a rueful irony when another character tells him, in psychobabble, that he should be "moving on". The past walks back into The Day I Stood Still in the heartening shape of the loved-one's teenage son and spitting image who just happens to be gay. The past is revived much more disturbingly in Forty Winks. What could pose more of a risk than a teenage girl who is the image of her mother in youth and who just happens (hence the title) to suffer from narcolepsy, repeatedly slumping in temptation-stirring bouts of sleep?

The excellent Dominic Rowan arouses exactly the right degree of troubled sympathy for Don's complex agitation. Forty Winks pitches in at a point near the end of the drama. Don has just given a funeral oration and Anastasia Hille's Diana, the married longed-for love of his life and the sister of the deceased, pays him a surprise visit at his hotel. She seizes him in a sexual embrace, but he can't respond (for more reasons than one) because of the strange noises coming from the bathroom. The play then leaves this hot, tense, sweaty episode dangling and hops back to a Sunday lunchtime, a few weeks before, when Don had re-entered the lives of these old friends after 14 years.

A reviewer's hands are tied. To pay proper tribute to the eerie way the play leaves certain crucial things eternally suspended in mystery would involve exposing too much of the intricate (and occasionally hard-to-credit) plot. I found the experience a potent one, even while feeling that the distribution of the sleep-theme was rather strained and that the jokes (courtesy of the gay characters) were thinner on the ground than formerly.

Located in just one setting, some of the playwright's earlier works have made the temporal transitions with a dreamily deceptive seamlessness. Here, an ominous black wall thuds down like a guillotine to allow the drama to shift in time and place. It would be both presumptuous and inaccurate to argue that, given his abiding concerns, Elyot must be as arrested as his protagonists. He has what they lack: a renewing creative freedom.

(020-7565 5000) to 4 December

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