Theatre: Four play at partner-swapping

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The Independent Culture
WHEN A girl goes to the trouble of delivering herself to a chap's hotel room as a gift-wrapped sex hamper (boots, leather coat, choker, sprig of festive tinsel and nothing underneath), she could be forgiven for feeling miffed if his initial response were to give her a brisk lecture on the ideas of Aristophanes.

In Happy Savages, the new play by Ryan Craig premiered at the Lyric Studio, this is what happens to horny, heartbroken Rachel (Victoria Woodward). She is treated to a rundown of the myth that human beings were once delightedly androgynous and self-sufficient. Then the gods grew jealous of this happiness and sent a thunderbolt that split the male from the female, leaving both halves forever searching for each other.

With Rachel and her companion, these segments could be said to have slotted back together again pretty resoundingly, if the sexual docking action was what principally counted. But Craig's comedy - which looks at a painful piece of partner- swapping in a quartet of twenty somethings - demonstrates that sex and love can be tricky items to synchronise.

Happy Savages is the 26-year-old Craig's first stage play, so it's not surprising that it exists on sharply different levels of achievement, ranging from the wittily well-observed to the crashingly schematic. There's nothing wrong in principle, for example, with making the main couple - Ben (Jack Herbert) and Lisa (Hermione Gulliford) respectively a Jewish writer researching a play on the sufferings of Holocaust survivors and a management consultant. In practice, though, it allows their differences to be aired in overweeningly neat formulations (she can't bear to suffer, he can't bear not to; he's content to slash at the tangled thickets of the world, she wants to make a clearing) rather than dramatised in their day-to-day intractability. This tendency to analytic eloquence comes across as a problem with the play, not as a further difficulty in the relationship.

The most skilful performance in David Evans Rees's production comes from Kris Marshall as Ben's best friend Joe, a lanky, shambolic cokehead and divorce lawyer who has a one-night fling with Lisa at a conference and manages to get her pregnant. Marshall has exquisitely off-hand comic timing. He can make a sexual pass at his furious girlfriend, be roundly repulsed, and shrug it off with equanimity, resuming his tasks at the ironing board and his gratingly cheerful whistle, as though it had been a figment of her imagination.

Craig is good on the laddish friendship between the two men (there's a particularly funny scene where a befuddled Joe is jerked back to consciousness by Ben's late night revelation that he's bedded Lisa's mother). But the features that make them an odd yet well- matched couple (Jew meets Catholic, separatist meets the kind of conformist who hasn't the energy to rebel except in small ways) end up being spelt out in an over-calculated late flashback to the boys' university days. The blemishes and callow touches, such as the fatal accident that facilitates the final union, don't, however, obscure the strengths. It is not a dismissal of Happy Savages to say that Mr Craig will write much better plays.

Runs until 22 August (0181 741 2311)