Motortown, Royal Court, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

There are echoes of Woyzeck and Taxi Driver in Motortown, the powerful and disturbing new play by Simon Stephens at the Royal Court. Danny, an Essex lad, superbly played by Daniel Mays, returns from serving with the Army in Basra only to find that England now feels like a hostile, foreign country to him.

There's no hero's welcome. The war he fought in is an embarrassment. A former girlfriend, freaked out by his weird letters, unceremoniously rejects him. He buys a gun, and the piece follows him through a fateful day on the home front.

Motortown shows you a young man who has neither the inner resources nor the external support network to cope with his enraged sense of alienation. By suggesting that Danny had dangerous tendencies before he joined up, the play arguably weakens the case it makes about the brutalising effects of violence committed under cover of the Army. But there's a hideous credibility to the twisted way he seeks to revenge himself for the girlfriend's rejection by subjecting a 14-year-old black girl (Ony Uhiara) to a re-enactment of the unofficial atrocities in Iraq - tormenting and torturing her, before shooting her dead.

For Danny, it's not the Government but the anti-war protesters who are the enemy, and, even as he stuffs the girl's corpse into a body bag, he continues to rant to her about a group that, in his warped mind, has come to embrace every minority he hates.

The play's best scene occurs just after this. A couple of smug married swingers, slumming it from Chalk Farm, try to pick him up for a threesome in the hotel where he's stopped for a drink. Stephens handles the black comedy and the tension of the situation brilliantly, as Danny gradually twigs to what they are after, and the anti-war couple, fooled at first by his charm and turned on by his Basra connection, slowly realise their mistake. "I'm gonna convert to Islam," he jeers. "Save me from scumbags like you."

The sense of stark dislocation is reinforced by Ramin Gray's excellent, stripped-to-the-brick production, which dispenses with scenery, save for a stack of plastic chairs, and lets you see all the stage management.

Even the initially dubious-seeming expedient of giving Danny an autistic brother to emphasise his lack of something solid to depend on is turned into dramatic gold in a final scene pitched awkwardly between brotherly tenderness and sexual manipulation. Without doubt, the most provocative and gripping piece produced so far in the Royal Court's 50th anniversary year.

To 20 May (020-7565 5000)

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