THEATRE / Grime and punishment

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The Independent Culture
Watching Mick Mahoney's comeback thriller Fantasy Bonds is like ogling an episode of The Sweeney, only seedier, more narcotic and minus the policemen. The lights come up on a seeping, sweaty nighthawks' bar, where one of the seeping, sweaty nighthawks can't decide whether to concentrate on rolling his joint of snorting his cocaine. This is Vince, one-time pop star, now virtually a full-time chemical processing plant: Vince, it transpires, is the least crooked geezer here.

The bar belongs to Weasel, a scrawny, anxious south London spiv. It will be his, that is, once his grandad pops his clogs and Weasel has paid off his debts to his wife's dodgy gangster bruvvers, Joe and Chris. This is where Vince and his money come in. It's also where we come in, and pretty much where we stay.

Having fathomed the underworld, Mahoney - who also directs - positively wallows in it, letting his characters stew in the unhealthy bar atmosphere. The almost random scheme of the plot is secondary to the sense of menace he evolves. Most of the cast brandish their characters' prior convictions with supreme conviction, and Mahoney handles the brutish tribal patter of the street with great skill, playing for humour while avoiding parody.

There are darkly comic moments to savour here, as when gangster Chris opens the second act by heavy- breathing into the bar's phone for the benefit of the police. Meanwhile, when their sister Raine decides to forsake Weasel for the black builder, Michael, her brother Joe gropes desperately in his racist psyche for an explanation: 'I mean, I know you like their music an' all Raine, but . . .' Mahoney manages to make these people funny without diminishing their threatening potential in a thoroughly involving morass of suspicion and prejudice.

It's almost a shame the play has to resolve itself. The demands of tying up loose ends make Mahoney betray his characters in a complex triple-cross involving the improbable figure of Weasel's mother, and the explosion of the violence which has been implicit all along. None the less, this can't quite spoil the vibrant nastiness of Mahoney's wriggle through London's maggoty underbelly.

While Mahoney's characters speak impeccable 'sarf Larndon' argot, the figures in Fran Landesman's Invade My Privacy have an altogether more brittle voice. It denigrates actors, anatomises men ('Although they can be perfect swine / they're nice with candlelight and wine') and dismisses women. It attacks everything like a verbal scatter-gun.

Four people at dinner spout Landesman's lyrics and poetry, accompanied by a jazzy on-stage band and interrupted by an elegantly vampiric waitress. Adorned by some excellent musical actors (devisor / director Howard Samuels, Jacqueline Dankworth, Lucy Dixon), the offhand staging fits perfectly with Landesman's stage- voice, which sounds like the dissolute descendant of Dorothy Parker: raspily strained through drink and cigarettes, waspishly witty, at its best when bitchy.

And bitchy it is. Landesman is a queen of quatrains which zoom towards the last-line kill. Her very savagery works against the more lyrical passages: Landesman the satirist, you feel, would slaughter Landesman the poet.

And perversely, it's the show's very cleverness which ultimately renders it less than satisfying. It's constantly quotable nature recalls Coward's rule that wit should be savoured like caviare rather than spread all over like marmalade. Invade My Privacy splatters the walls with epigrams. But with such a surfeit, even the sharpest barbs get blunted.

Claudio Macor's The Tailor-Made Man, on the other hand, could do with a bit more acerbity. The story of Hollywood's first openly gay movie star, William Haines, Macor's script is badly hampered by the writer / director's ambivalence towards both his hero and that dirty rotten town.

Macor shows Haines cavorting arrogantly from sailor to sailor in public parks while his companion, Jimmy, waits long-sufferingly at home. He reveals how Haines was built up by the studio system only to be knocked down once his lifestyle became an embarrassment. But Macor also shows himself half in love with the glamour of the era and Haines' unpalatable egotism.

This uncertainty of tone is compounded by a cramping set and a series of performances which almost look like parodies. Simon Tweed's Haines can't put a charming spin on Haines' callous treatment of Jimmy. Marion Davies and Carole Lombard become goggling bimbettes, Louis B Mayer a muttering administrator. At least these escape the risible hatchet-job that Macor and actress Rebecca Forrow wreak on Pola Negri.

At the end, Macor uses Haines' and Jimmy's later, happy professional and personal relationship as interior decorators to the stars, to make a plea for Haines as a gay hero for today. But most of his scrappy production is at odds with the claim: it's only in Hollywood that a happy ending makes everything right.

'Fantasy Bonds' at the Old Red Lion (071-837 7816) to 27 March; 'Invade My Privacy' at Riverside Studios (081-748 3354/741 3602) to 3 April; 'The Tailor Made Man' at BAC (071-223 2223) to 4 April