THEATRE / Hell's belles: Paul Taylor reviews Ghost from a Perfect Place at the Hampstead Theatre

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No one has the ability to laugh at themselves like the women of the East End,' opines John Wood's excellent Travis, a gangster from the Sixties, newly returned to his former stomping ground after years of exile in the States. Immaculate in black suit and tie, with a visage that makes your average 'Wanted' poster look like a copy of the Blue Boy, Travis will soon have cause to reverse this verdict when Rio (Trevyn McDowell), the granddaughter of his interlocutor, erupts on to the scene with her two female side-kicks.

John Osborne has written in the Spectator of how he's been plagued by letters from the Daughters of Eve, a score- settling sorority from UCLA. That bunch sounds like the Dagenham Girl Pipers compared to the Cheerleaders, the in-yer-face castrating trio who, in the second half of Philip Ridley's Ghost from a Perfect Place, give Travis a belated taste of his own

medicine.

Scoffingly, he describes them as 'bimbos in kitchen foil' on account of their gold- leaf mini-dresses. Given their space-mutant make-up and rituals of patriarchy-reversing invulnerability ('Nothing will ever hurt me again / I've got battery acid in my veins'), the word 'bimbo' does not do justice to the post-apocalyptic feel of these whores with hearts of ice.

Ridley, who wrote the screenplay of The Krays, evidently wishes to contrast the criminality of the Sixties (the lovely-suit-and-fingernails- shame-about-the-knuckledusters ethos) with the nihilism of today, which, it seems, we are also to regard as a crime. But, to my ears, Ridley's story itself screams the injustice of that parallel. For Rio, it emerges, is the product not just of how the world has wagged since then, but of Travis's monstrous behaviour to her family.

Less sensational and rather like updated Dickens, the best part is the initial duologue between the revenant Travis and the old grandmother (likeable Bridget Turner). She waxes nostalgic over 'the 'eydays' of the Sixties, her idealisation of them made all the more sadly comic by his growing awareness that he is the author of the family's woes. Once again, it's the chipped Baroque bric-a-brac of Ridley's imagination that makes the most vivid impression (the image, say, of a zombified child putting a dead rat in the hand of a graveyard angel) and Matthew Lloyd's skilful production creates just the right mood. It gets round the problem that the play is mostly narrative recapitulation by stressing the comic and tragic ways people re-live the past when retelling it.

The last section can scarcely be said to do feminism any favours. What happens after Travis is driven to tearful recall of what he did to her mother? Does Rio give him another few biffs from her gold-sprayed baseball bat? Not a bit of it. She crumples, releases him from his bonds and puts her militancy in the dustbin. A couple exited during the cigars- gouged-in-face bit: it was during Rio's recantation that I got itchy feet.

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