Gong Donkeys, The Bush, London

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The Independent Culture

Wilkie Collins is enjoying something of a theatrical vogue this autumn. Andrew Lloyd Webber has turned The Woman in White into a big-budget musical; and now the Victorian novelist features in a real-life escapade that is the germ of Gong Donkeys, a new play by Richard Cameron, set in contemporary Doncaster.

Wilkie Collins is enjoying something of a theatrical vogue this autumn. Andrew Lloyd Webber has turned The Woman in White into a big-budget musical; and now the Victorian novelist features in a real-life escapade that is the germ of Gong Donkeys, a new play by Richard Cameron, set in contemporary Doncaster.

In the late 1850s, Collins travelled to the town with his friend Charles Dickens, who, on the pretext of writing about the St Leger horse race, fulfilled his ambition of visiting the young actress Ellen Ternan. This undercover scenario - which gave Collins the idea for a ghost story - is the basis for a theatrically improvised and distortedly mirrored article in Cameron's funny-sad drama, in which the characters illustrate, to a rather contrived degree, the ways in which compulsive storytelling offers a compensation for failure and emotional disappointment.

When his mother has to go into a psychiatric hospital because of the philandering of his doctor father, the bookish 14-year-old David (sympathetically played by Rory Jennings) is billeted for the summer holidays on his working-class aunt and uncle.

Everyone, it seems, is attempting to escape from misery through stories. Redundant from the railways, the oppressively autodidactic uncle (Edward Peel) tries to bolster his ego by converting the Dickens/Collins incident into what is clearly going to be a rejected paper for the local history society. The 18-year-old daughter, Charlene (Andrea Lowe), a disaffected trainee at a "hair and beauty" college, has retreated into soap-opera addiction. She acts out the storylines on the local wasteland with Gobbo (Peter Bramhill) and Wink (Burn Gorman), a couple of twentysomething misfits with a mental age of around 10, who take refuge from the pain of bullying and broken homes in fantasies about the SAS and The Catcher in the Rye.

The play never properly establishes why this young woman has to depend for company on such a duo of simple-minded child-men, who are the "gong donkeys" of the title. (It was a term invented by Dickens to describe lunatics who lurch around making a noise between that of a gong and the braying of an ass.) Their association feels like a convenience that enables the play to show Charlene refracting whatever is on her mind - her father's history paper; the imminent divorce of David's parents - into therapeutic drama.

The results are sometimes amusing, her friends' idea of the speech and behaviour of Victorian literary society being somewhat approximate ("You know what a moody bugger 'e can be when 'e's on wi' a new book"). But Cameron's humane intentions (his wish to hint at, say, the untapped potential in these derided youths) are too overt, as when it's Wink who understands the message Charlene's play is trying to send to her cousin David.

Though it's given a surrealist design that does not chime with anything in the script, Mike Bradwell's production generates warmth, and there's a lovely performance from Anita Carey as the kindly aunt. There's no disguising, though, the perfunctory handling of the plot about the missing child. In a play about storytelling, cold reality should make a more forceful intrusion.

To 11 December (020-7610 4224)

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