The Straits, Hampstead Theatre, London

Rites and wrongs of passage
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Gregory Burke has drawn on his experiences as a teenager living in Gibraltar for his new rites-of-passage play, The Straits. It's the follow-up to the smash hit, Gagarin Way, his blackly hilarious comedy about a heist and a protest against global capitalism that go spectacularly wrong. If you did not know better, you would say that The Straits has all the hallmarks of a debut drama, with its semi-autobiographical male initiation story, and you would hail it as an apprentice piece of significant promise. It's the play's misfortune Gagarin Way has so emphatically stolen its thunder.

At the start, three lean, fit youths in swimming-trunks haul themselves from the sea on to the St George's Cross-shaped incline that, in Neil Warmington's simple, symbolic design, represents Rosia Bay on the Rock of Gibraltar. These teenage boys - all the sons of low-ranking military personnel in the British forces there - have just been shooting octopuses, but it's clear that their testosterone-charged aggressiveness is not going to be satisfied with killing sea-creatures. Darren (Calum Callaghan) is the runty, susceptible newcomer, natural prey for Doink, whose cocky charisma and underlying insecurity are strikingly conveyed by James Marchant. This latter competes with his sidekick, the decent and more intelligent Jock (the excellent Stephen Wight) for the attentions of Tracy (Jenny Platt), Darren's sexily assured sister. But, even with her interventions, there is still a strange feel of Lord of the Flies in John Tiffany's tightly focused production.

Unfolding in May 1982, the piece offers a potentially fresh and intriguing angle on the Falklands campaign, that conflict seen now from the perspective of youths, stuck miles away on another outpost of empire, who want to prove their manhood. They take out some of their frustration and knee-jerk racism on the local "spics" at the annual "anti-English day" brawl. But Burke's attempt to counterpoint the coming-of-age machismo rituals on the Rock with the concurrent war in the South Atlantic comes across as forced at times and lacking in any original insights. When we hear that Doink's brother is serving on HMS Sheffield, it's possible to guess most of the rest of the proceedings.

Apart that is, for the admirable way that the play refuses to make these experiences redemptive. When Darren, beaten and humiliated by Doink, makes a crazy last bid to win his approval, you expect the tragic outcome to bring them all to their senses. But the deeply depressing epilogue suggests that Doink, heading for a career in the marines, is now prepared to admit Darren to his worthless elite and even invests him with the knife that had belonged to his brother. Punctuated by jolting blasts of The Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" and sexily choreographed movement sequences by Frantic Assembly's Steven Hoggett which transmit the hormonal restlessness and hollow swagger of adolescence with stylised incisiveness, Tiffany's production packs a mean punch. Burke's dialogue, while not as exhilaratingly sharp as in Gagarin Way, has a terrific heightened naturalness. And there are scenes that twist the guts like that in which a comforting Tracy tries to seduce the bereaved Doink, only to have herself used sexually and then dismissed as a slag in front of the others. It's just that, for all the keenly observed novelty of the setting and the unfamiliar tilt it should give to the piece, you watch The Straits feeling that you have been there before.

To 29 Nov (020-7722 9301)