Theatre: DOWNFALL / TELL HIM

Contact Theatre, Manchester
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The Independent Culture
Under the title "Hot House", Contact is currently devoting its theatre to a month-long writers' festival which augments their annual Young Playwrights' showcase and North West Writers' Workshops with this main house pairing of new plays and a lively programme of platform events.

Pete Kalu's Downfall encloses a fascinating piece of disturbed introspection within what becomes a routine modern melodrama. The action features a small-time drugs gang with big guns, and the efforts of the shrimpy fantasist Webster (Phillip King) to become a little Caesar. This much ends predictably with a bungled hit and voluble Uzis. But the real interest lies in the shifting, disturbed mind of gang-leader Nimo (David Webber), whose interest in guns and cash ("everything else is bollocks," says Webster) is dissolving into a mindscape of family nostalgia, a vision of angels and himself as a transcendent Ashanti warrior. "Respect" is the key word, but it is his own he has come to crave, or even a little nobility. In Deborah Yhip's production, the delineation of Nimo's world against the surrounding mayhem is not as clear as it might be, but Kalu's writing of his leading character is searching and imaginative.

Matthew Dunster's new play, Tell Him, looks at how one can tell, or understand, anything amid all the static around us. On the soundtrack of Gareth Tudor Price's production, the rain outside and the TV inside are beautifully merged into an impermeable tinnitus in which Mum (Susan McGoun) and Dad (Seamus O'Neill) oscillate over a narrow range of desperation. On the couch, apparently oblivious to it all, is the catatonic Liam - a superb physical performance from Richard Oldham.

Whether the eruption of the other son, Nial, cuts through all this or contributes to it is undecidable. He is a Manc lad who has swallowed the Book of Revelation - "the time, sponsored by Accurist, is at hand." He is foul-mouthed, loquacious and strung out to an impossible pitch, bitterly witty, a hero and a monster, and Dominic McHale's portrayal of him is mesmerising. His sneakers barely seem to touch the floor, he pumps sweat and his dark eyes are like a heat lance.

Mounting this funny, violent, sometimes excessive, yet finally tender play in this superb production justifies the "Hot House" season by itself, and if the multiple promise on show is fulfilled we shall all be in Contact's debt.

n To 24 June. Booking: 0161 274 4400. The `Hot House' season continues to 1 July

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