THEATRE / Desert island risks: Jeffrey Wainwright on Self-Catering in Liverpool

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ANDREW Cullen's second play, here re-opening the Playhouse Studio in a co-production with Altered States, reveals the author as a kind of cartoonist, a writer who relishes the swift strokes of caricature and punchline. Many of the scenes in Self-Catering are, in effect, a series of frames, usually closing with one of the characters so confounded that we can almost see that spiky halo of discomfiture reverberating. He has even set his play on a desert island.

Cullen's five castaways straggle out of a plane crash in wonderfully cacophonous confusion with their Costa leisurewear already smirched and torn. Carefully sorted by their author to be ill-assorted, they soon suggest, by the blackly comic way they react to one comatose companion, that civilisation must be a very loose term for where they came from.

Strangers hitherto, they soon recognise the opportunity to choose afresh who to be. At the instigation of Henry, a movie-bore in cinemascope, they decide to become Marilyn (Rosie Rowell), Clint (Andrew Schofield) and Bette (Ayse Owens). Their unconscious companion they dub Meryl (Jane Hogarth). The irony is, of course, that the types we have already recognised - earnest wimp, Essex girl, macho man, rebarbative feminist - have picked their own idealised self-images. Life, runs the play's central conceit, is a movie in which we merely play roles.

The cartoon comedy as these figures bump against one another is hit-and-miss. Cullen's jokes, often very funny, at other times sound suspiciously re-cycled. The salient feature of each character - Henry's cinematic recall, Marilyn's tinkly giggle, Clint's swagger - is reiterated beyond endurance. Despite this, the acting, under Kate Rowland's direction, is vigorous and good, especially from Paul Broughton, who finds genuine sympathy in the endless loops of Henry's compulsiveness.

In the second half the desert island becomes more seriously emblematic as the play seeks to earn its subtitle of 'A Short History of the World'. Meryl, now reawakened, has lost her memory and regressed to childhood. Each of the others exploits her in turn. Clint ravishes her, Henry lectures her, Marilyn introduces her to high- heels, and Bette gives her assertiveness training before seducing her. A nice touch in Hannah Mayan's clear design adds a garden gate to this fading Eden, now strewn witn plastic litter from the plane's looted hold. Clint's violence turns nastier and by the end human life, far from being a beach holiday, is shown to be a very bad day at Black Rock.

As ways of defusing philosophical portentousness, neither the reflexiveness of the movie references nor the jokes are wholly successful. Yet it would be unfair to characterise Self-Catering as a thicket of variable sketches set round a Big Theme, first because the sketches are often lively, witty and acute, and secondly because the ambition to deal with large ideas is too rare in contemporary theatrical writing.

To 24 Oct (091-704 8363)