Theatre; GANGSTER NO 1; Almeida Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
You just don't expect this sort of thing at this address. A state- of-the-art Racine revival, perhaps, or something piquant and rare by Griboyedov. The world premiere of a lean-cuisine Pinter or a hot-off-the- grid avant-garde opera about a titled nymphomaniac would raise few eyebrows here either. But a novice play about seedy, savage London gangsters in which the lead character turns on the audience at the end and invites it outside to have its melts knocked out? Can this really be the Almeida I'm sitting in?

Gangster No 1 is the first stage-work by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, and evidently actors as distinguished as Peter Bowles, Richard Johnson and Kenneth Colley and a director of the stature of Jonathan Kent feel it to be a play of enormous, blackly comic power. The word I'd dispute there is "play", for if this often hightly talented exercise proves anything, it's that a stage-piece comprised, in the main, of monologues does not necessarily a drama make.

Set in the present day, the proceedings begin confusingly with all the characters reminiscing about the criminal underworld of the Sixties, when Freddie Mays (Johnson), now a convict, was known as the "Butcher of Mayfair". It's a struggle to keep up with the narrative here, as off- stage characters with names like Lennie and Karen and Roland are recalled by on-stage characters with such generic titles as Gangster (Bowles) and Bent Copper (Colley).

Gradually, though, you discern the shape of the story underlying the recollections. Besotted by night-club dancer Karen, Freddie was judged to have gone soft. Lennie tried to eliminate him, succeeded in killing her and was butchered in retaliation by the Gangster. Ironically, it was Freddie who took the rap for this counter-measure and the Gangster who then took over his wildly profitable patch. Now, 22 years later, Freddie has been released.

As the Gangster, Peter Bowles is brilliantly funny with his sawn-off, thug-made-good voice and his unfussed matter-of-factness about hair-raising violence ("Caught up with Maxie. Tortured him. Threw him out of the window," he discloses as routinely as he might admit to having run into Maxie, had a round of golf and got rat-arsed). The writing offers a number of rich opportunities for solo tours de force. In one outpouring, a steak- and-kidney-pie tea and joyless oral sex with the wife become nightmarishly confused in the Bent Copper's mind with the hideously mutilated body he's just examined, while a transfigured Bowles take us, in richly emetic detail, through Lennie's long-drawn out slaughter.

Even when the writers decline the chance for real interaction, there's sometimes a dramatic justification, as in the big post-prison confrontation when Bowles's discomfiture is hilariously conveyed by having him relate the encounter as an incredulous present-tense commentary ("I'm pouring sugar into a bowl for him. He's not getting a milk jug!") in which the piss is well and truly taken out of him by an antagonist playing to different rules. But you're left with a sense of frustration: there's enough talent in some of the interplay that is allowed ("Have you ever murdered anybody?" "How do you mean?") to make you regret that Gangster No 1 is, by and large, a set of virtuoso audition-pieces.

n To 7 Oct. Booking: 0171-359 4404

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