The Fastest Clock in the Universe, Hampstead Theatre, London

Plenty of life in this Gothic gem
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The Independent Culture

If misery makes time stand still, is it the secret of eternal youth? The trade-off would seem reasonable to Cougar, who, when the topic of aging comes up, writhes, heaves, and screams in agony.

Every narcissist has his captive nonentity, and Cougar has Captain Tock, who pays the bills and does the chores in their flat above a disused fur factory. But, after a dozen 19th-birthday parties, at which Cougar enjoys the pretty boy who is his present while the captain walks the streets, there's a change in the script. Foxtrot, the naive teenager Cougar plans to seduce, shows up with a terrible thing on his arm – a girl. The captain is greatly amused, but the oblivious young couple drive their smoldering host to such a blaze of fury that it seems likely his carving knife will end up someplace other than the cake.

Since its premiere at Hampstead in 1992, Philip Ridley's meaty slice of East End Gothic has been much admired. I was then very taken with its blend of fanciful horror and comical real-life stupidity – Sherbet, Foxtrot's poisonous piece of arm candy, unwittingly comes up, regular as clockwork, with the most infuriating comment possible. The winking brilliance of the play's wit is set off by the darkness of its milieu – this time, in Mark Thompson's lofty set of scabby, bile-coloured walls and dozens of stuffed birds the Captain calls his "babies". The factory beneath the characters' feet has been taken over by noisy, filth-dropping live birds, and there are persistent images of animal torture which invite us to see man as both torturer and victim.

Inevitably, on the splendid new theatre's much larger stage, the play lacks the concentrated squalor of Hampstead's dear old Quonset hut. But now it also seems overburdened with fantasy and overly explicit metaphor that slow down the action and conflict with the mood. Not much fault can be found, however, with Edward Dick's gold-star production. Finbar Lynch, as the Captain, doesn't seem downtrodden enough for the besotted, exploited figure of the first half, but he is amusingly malicious as the pseudo-innocent player in the second-act game of "get the host". Though the part of Foxtrot has a formidable predecessor at this address – Jude Law – Neet Mohan has nothing to worry about as far as looks go. But he lacks the more important aspect of the role, Foxtrot's vulnerability. He's too knowing, too assertive, and his outbursts of temper make him sound like a nasty little creep rather than a weak young man, anxious to please, who suddenly realises he has given away too much of himself. Alec Newman is hilarious and dangerous as Cougar, first gleefully crowing, "Welcome to the abattoir!" then coiled and glowering at the repressive female in his lair.

Proclaiming, in a penetrating squeal, her new love of "traditional things" while posing in a micro-skirt and emitting a traditional expletive, Jaime Winstone seizes the part of Sherbet between her teeth, flinging away the mask of disingenuousness with a celerity that emphasises her contempt. Like Foxtrot, Sherbet is childish, but in her case a child who wants to be the bride at every wedding and – a wish too far, this – the corpse at every funeral. As Ridley shows, the big divide in humanity is not between male and female but between eaters and eaten. Doomed in his battle against time, Cougar gives in to his nature and is destroyed. Nature, smiling and amoral, licks her lips.

To 17 October (020-7722 9301)

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