THEATRE / Invitation to the oddball: Paul Taylor on The Chinese Wolf at the Bush, W12

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The Independent Culture
IF IT'S not one thing, it's another, today, for that young man with the hunchback who is attempting to wash his hands in the poxy sink of his mother's south London junkyard. 'I've just killed my father,' he says, giving them an irritated extra rinse, 'my mother's hopped it to Brazil, and now it's trick bloody soap]' This outburst by Max, towards the end, gives a fair indication of the tone of David Ashton's very funny new play, The Chinese Wolf. Here, Oedipal rites de passage and aggressive takeover bids from psychotics dressed up as Disneyland animals have to share the stage with cheating invisible-ink pens retrieved from toy-chests, and mock duels in kiddy cowboy gear that are brought to a standstill when the 'rancher's daughter' is drawn by one of the duellists into a lengthy lesbian snog. A kissing session which leaves our hunchback hero, pistol now adroop, playing gooseberry and looking a right lemon.

Did I mention that he was a Platters freak? Well, he is, totally, having been rescued from a feeling of cosmic insignificance one day in a greasy caff when someone played 'Only You', a lyric he seems to have taken a shade over-personally. Now, forever activating his sound system with a showy flourish of the remote, Ronan Vibert's excellent Max struts about to the group's greatest hits in a manner that suggests Quasimodo impersonating Max Wall. He has more on his plate than the Platters, though. For a start, there's the awkward competion between him and Maureen Beattie's Ruby (a boiler-suited Scots lesbian engine-stripper) over the bisexual Claire (Julia Ford) who arrives at the yard costumed as a nun but swiftly reveals less orthodox habits. Then there's the fact that Billy Chortles (Desmond Barrit), the mountainous racketeer, is determined to take over the whole area for a megalomaniac Palace of Fun. Deformed and still tied to his mother's apron strings, bright but inclined to hide behind hollow comic bravado, Max has been left to face the takeover music alone.

The play is most attractively directed by Dominic Dromgoole and peopled by a cast who excel at bringing out the strong charm of Ashton's oddball but down-to-earth sense of humour. There's Claire, for instance, explaining the link between her first orgasm, cutting up dead bodies and the note her younger brother played on his harmonica, and how she and her pathologist-lover were eventually caught in flagrante on his slab by the incoming casualties from a pile-up on the M4. There's a tongue-tied Max, having a hard (and hilarious) time trying to mime with his fingers what it is he imagines lesbian sex consists of. Or there's Desmond Barrit, 16 epicene stone of self-pampered thuggery, sitting down to the fussy little picnic tea he has brought with him, prior to directing his persuasive 'methods' against Max and friends.

I shan't reveal what the Chinese Wolf is, other than to say it creates an impressive stage effect. The play is very enjoyable, but the fancifulness may strike you, in the end, as a bit too flexible for its own good. As with his father's suit, which patricidal Max symbolically dons and which proves a perfect fit for him even over the hump, Ashton's material is suspiciously resistance-free.

To June 5, the Bush Theatre, London W12 (081-743 3388)

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