THEATRE: Darktales; Arts Theatre, London

Everybody can recognise what George Orwell was getting at when he drew a distinction between Good Books and Bad Books - by Good Books he meant fundamentally serious, thoughtful works, books intended to elevate as well as entertain the reader; while Bad Books are the pulp and schlock, the Jilly Coopers and Dick Francises that take entertainment to be literature's only true aim. The same categories can be applied to any art-form - plays, paintings, music. The important point is that Goodness and Badness are not judgements of quality but descriptions of genre, so that you can have bad Good books and good Bad books.

The dichotomy is a useful critical tool; but while the general principles seem simple enough, it can be hard to apply them in individual cases. Darktales is one such case: is Tim Arthur's wordy chiller a really terrible Good play, or a rather good Bad play? Something of both, perhaps.

The plot concerns a confrontation, in a quiet room during a party, between two writers of horror stories. Alex Crowther (an assured performance by Andrew Hall) is an ageing, upper-class purveyor of supernatural yarns, apparently in the vein of MR James; Jack Langton (Jamie Hinde) is a young, chippy, unpublished author of tales of urban violence. Langton attacks Crowther's sort of literature; but this turns out to be a cover for an issue that really bothers him - what has happened to Lucy, the girl he loves, who was last seen leaving a party with Crowther a couple of weeks earlier? Crowther deflects the argument over the girl into a story-telling competition - his artificial thrills versus Langton's realistic terror.

Considered as a Good play, Darktales has terrible flaws. The dialogue is clumsy, the arguments about literary style cliched and sterile. There is also the more fundamental problem that the genres under examination are too flimsy to bear the aesthetic weight that Arthur tries to place on them. The differences between MR James and a contemporary writer like, say, Dean Koontz are ones of period and convention; you can't make this, as Arthur tries to do, a struggle between "art as beauty" and "art as life". Nevertheless, in imposing these categories, Arthur does manage to create a sense of ambition and complexity that makes it hard to pass the play off as merely Bad.

It's when it shows its worst side that the play comes off best. Even as a straightforward Bad play, it has problems - the sub-plot about the girl isn't convincingly integrated, the denouement is hammy and predictable. But the stories within the play are brilliantly performed (Hinde's urban myth about a lurking psycho is a minor tour de force) and immensely enjoyable. Karen Louise Hebden's production makes a hearty meal out of the stories. Lighting, music and sound effects are deployed brilliantly, so that even while you are aware how corny the stories are, it's hard to ward off the creeping tension. You may not be scared, but you can appreciate the air of scariness.

To 4 January. Booking: 0171-836 3334

Robert Hanks

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