Life With An Idiot, Gate Theatre, London

Hosts to the house-guest from hell
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The Independent Culture

Lots of sound and fury in this tale of an idiot – the word used in the now-forbidden medical sense of a person with a mental age of two. Adapted by the company from a short story by Victor Erofeyev, the play shows how the marriage of Masha and "I" is disrupted when the title character, Vova, moves in. Any house guest would introduce a discordant note into their flat – the walls, floor, books, and single piece of furniture are white, their clothes are black, and they live on olives, caviar and milk. But Vova, id personified, rampages around, brandishing his huge penis (a sausage) and making messes on the floor with their food, before and after eating it. Masha and I are incandescent, but can't kick him out. All she can do is scream, in Chekhovian echo, "I want my old life back!"

For Vova is there as punishment. I has transgressed, in a way unnamed till the end of the play, and the state has decreed that he must take one of the inmates of the local asylum into his home. I thinks Vova, a middle-aged man of hesitant, dignified mien, except for his intense, wordless conversations with himself, is just the ticket, but Masha knows better. "How could you choose him! He has the skull of a degenerate!" she shouts, and, turning to her husband, cries "You idiot!"

What follows is often amusing, especially in the joyous, yet lethal antics of the silent Vova (Fergus McLarnor) and the gradually thawing manner of Tea Alagic's alternately lip-curling and purring dominatrix. But it is hardly, as the director Ben Harrison claims in the programme, "full of surprises". The results of Vova's uninhibited pansexuality are quite predictable, as are the means by which I and Vova resolve their problem. The action becomes repetitious, the dialogue overexplicit.

A greater flaw, though, is its shift from the political to the personal. Erofeyev's story was written in 1980, and in it, Vova was said to resemble Lenin. Because of the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union, materialism takes its place here as an agent of oppression. But, given that shopping is a self-inflicted illness, and that its consequences are far less severe than falling foul of a totalitarian state, the play's opening and closing scenes (both encounters with authority) seem detached from the rest, and the whole feels lightweight rather than sharply satiric.

Fred Meller's chicly sinister set is ingenious, though at times it's difficult for a spectator at one end of the long, narrow room to see what's going on at the other, each a locus of the appetites (for food or sex) that drive Vova to his spectacular clashes with bourgeois propriety.

To 3 November, 020-7229 0706

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