THEATRE / Keeping up with the Jinxes: Paul Taylor reviews The Devil's Only Sleeping at the Cockpit theatre

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IF YOUR family name was Jinx, you might have a job getting life-insurance and you'd certainly think twice about making long-term plans. Far from taking precautions, though, this branch of the clan seems to be asking for it. After all, any woman who keeps a length of rope stored in the same box as her old wedding dress can hardly complain if one day somebody murders her son and tries to pass it off as a case of transvestite suicide, now can she? And she is only a Jinx by marriage . . .

Mounted in a powerfully-acted production at the Cockpit, Nick Stafford's The Devil's Only Sleeping has an arresting central idea and, when it takes a breather from piling on the macabre recurrences, some deftly-turned moments; but mostly there's such a doominess-overload that it's impossible to watch the piece with a straight face.

'You look as though you've seen a ghost': the drama begins with the release from prison of Barton Jinx (Billy McColl) after serving 18 years for his part in the murder of his brother's father-in-law. The twist is that he is an identical twin who also, it seems, had a hand in the car crash that killed his lookalike sibling. So when he returns to the gossipy, small-minded country village and to the holding worked by his sister-in-law Myra (Sheridan MacDonald) and her 18- year-old son Billy (Bruce Richardson), the past appears to have walked back in a particularly perplexing form.

It's when you see Barton biting the head off a flower at his brother's grave and gobbling it up that you begin to feel safe in assuming that his return isn't going to be a simple matter of getting his feet under the table, his hands on the widow and (in a postponed Oedipal contest) his belt on the fatherless boy. The warped mentality of Barton - whose possessive fixation with his twin emerges as the root of all the woes - would make a fascinating focus for a play in its own right, but instead of exploring the phenomenon, Stafford simply uses it as the trigger for psychological melodrama. He also blurs the issue by attributing some of the blame to the suffocating place where everything is common knowledge and passes into morbid local legend (such as the story of Dead Man's Wood, nudge). In a four-hander (with no Greek chorus of prying rustics), this is not an easy atmosphere to create. To achieve a bit of liberation, the son (and whose son is he, by the way?) indulges in a spot of gender-swapping larkiness with his trendy, middle-class girlfriend, Alex (Julia Grayson), who likes making him up. She's travelled, you see, so this is no more than you'd expect. What is a little unanticipated, though, is that she should own the very car in which Billy's father crashed to his death, or that she and Billy should have a psychic ability to reconnect to this bloody event. The fact that Barton hoves into view every time the young couple are up to something on these lines pushes the play into unintended farce.

It says a lot for Jon Morrison's involving production and for the skill of the performances that the risk of it all turning into a camp hoot is minimised - though you can't help thinking that the Jinxes would have had a more relaxing time of it if only they'd changed their name to Jones.

Continues at the Cockpit, London NW8. Box-office: 071-402 5081