The Winterling, Royal Court, London

But, as with Mojo, the amphetamine-fuelled comedy located in Fifties Soho that put Butterworth on the map, I wonder whether this drama amounts to much more than a skilful stylistic exercise, sealed off in its own bubble of verbal virtuosity.

The setting is a derelict Dartmoor farmhouse, accommodating West (Robert Glenister), a fugitive from London gangland, and Lue (Sally Hawkins), a waif who compulsively plans the escape she seems fated never to achieve. Wally (Jerome Flynn), an old accomplice and pal of West, arrives with his stepson, aptly named Patsy and hilariously performed by Daniel Mays.

The ensuring power-play is like a talented pastiche of Pinter, as when West, with intimidating mock-solicitude, insists that his guests take off their wet trousers to dry by the fire ("Go on, Patsy. Pop your slacks off," he urges insinuatingly). Why, though, has he invited Wally? Is he plotting revenge, or does he, having recovered from a nervous breakdown, want help in returning to his former life?

A flashback, with West reverting from control-freak bully to a shivering wreck, fills us in on the gruesome circumstances that led to his crack-up. But the idea that criminal gangs show no respect for friendship, and indeed have an interest in engineering betrayals and violence, is not an earth-shattering revelation.

Butterworth tries to introduce a note of hope in the way two of the male characters react to the girl. Lue is allowed a splendid rant at the unintelligibility of the form to fill out before getting the main form for a passport, and it's touching that her request for West's signature as "someone of standing" embarrasses him into a confession.

But Lue's problems with leaving are clearly psychological rather than bureaucratic. The problem for the play is that her eventual rescue (which may well liberate the liberator) comes across as a tacked-on romantic discrepancy in a dark comedy of secretly clashing agendas.

But, despite the odd, arrestingly contemporary image (Patsy says his volatile mother "goes off like a rucksack") and the sound of fighter planes, The Winterling feels like an oddly unengaged piece of artifice.

To 8 April (020-7565 5000)

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