THEATRE It's cold in bed

Live Bed Show Garrick, London
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The Independent Culture
The premise of Arthur Smith's "new" play (extensively rewritten since 1989) is a brilliant one. We spend so much of life in bed, why not set a drama around one? Birth, sex, love and death occur between the sheets, so by placing a bed on stage, the playwright creates endless dramatic possibility.

In Smith's stripped-pine bouncing beauty of a bed, the play opens to the sound of a female orgasm followed by curtain-up and the sight of Maria (Caroline Quentin) sitting glumly in bed next to Cash (Paul Merton) who is reading the paper. Cash turns to Maria: "Did you say something?"

As a comedian, Smith recognises the importance of opening with a bang, and there follows in the two-hander's 90 minutes a rush of one-liners, tailored perfectly to Merton's lugubriousness and Quentin's withering invective. The couple's real-life bed-sharing brings a knowing piquancy to the exchanges which, although Merton occasionally looks unsure of himself, support the play through some of its weaker patches.

This is not a work of great warmth. Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect in a play about love is the feeling of coldness emanating from the stage - almost the only time the couple turn tactile is when Maria squeezes Cash's blackheads. Here is a work of abundant, at times depressing, cynicism.

Live Bed Show suffers from its share of groaners ("Don't be glib." "Who, Maurice Glib?") and yet this is almost what the play needs, since at no point does it generate enough passion to fully engage its audience. It is a measure of the script's uncertainty that you find yourself fearing for the ending. This was Smith's first play (he played the Merton role in 1989) and the easy laughs are never sufficiently woven together.

Reliant on Quentin and Merton's deftest comic strokes, this is no more or less than a light bedroom comedy - sketchy scenes, shot through with stand-up. In years to come, they may say Arthur Smith was the very first to invent lie-down theatre.

Mark Wareham