Penelope, Hampstead Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Irish playwright Enda (Disco Pigs, The Walworth Farce) Walsh was invited by a German theatre to respond to The Odyssey.

The exercise could have taken him out of himself, inspiring a vacation from his constitutional tendency to zero in on trapped situations and housebound existences. Instead, in his intermittently funny, profligately word-drunk and overwhelmingly tiresome play Penelope, Walsh alights upon an underwritten Homeric subject – the suitors who laid siege to Ulysses's wife for 20 years – and then refashions it in his own all-too-familiar image. The piece emerges as a flabby "Waiting for Ulysses" – a cross between pauper's Beckett and the kind of (metaphorically) chained gabfest you get in, say, Frank McGuinness's hostage drama Someone Who'll Watch Over Me.

Other than in the crudest psych textbook terms, it was never clear to me why the quartet of Irish male losers, spaced out in age but all apparently ex-businessmen, were in the prisoner position here. Walsh certainly creates a piquant stage picture by having his out-of-condition, bickering foursome kill time in speedos and towelling robes at the bottom of a drained swimming pool equipped with a cocktail cabinet and ominous barbecue. It's as though a Richard Hamilton pop art painting has come to life and started to spout existentialist blarney. The idea is that Ulysses is imminent and that each of the suitors has one last chance of winning Penelope or all will be barbecued. But the switches in the basic set-up, whereby this silent figure seems to call the shots and watches the resulting desperate cabaret on CCTV, are never properly justified and, if this lot survived out of the 100-odd suitors at the start, it must have been a pretty anti-Darwinian process. For a witty, postmodern look at this situation read Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad.

To 5 March (020 7722 9301)

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