THEATRE: Language Roulette Bush, London

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The Independent Culture
There's heavier drinking on the stage of the Bush at the moment than there is in the pub downstairs. It's Pound-a-Pint night at the local in Daragh Carville's Language Roulette and daft Ollie, on the larkily literal-minded basis of having pounds 20 on him, proceeds to buy 20 pints of Guinness - all at once, crowding them on to the table where they look like a health warning advert about weekly alcohol intake. Topped off with a few rounds of tequila slammers, a tray of flaming samboukas, and one or two little coloured pills, they provide the fuel for an evening of celebration that was always bound to turn nasty.

Language Roulette falls into the venerable tradition of the homecoming drama; a standby of dramatists since at least the Agamemnon of Aeschylus.

We're in Belfast in 1994 on the first evening of the ceasefire. Like the play's 27-year-old author, Joseph (Patrick Lennox), a young dramatist, has been away living on the continent. For reasons we only gradually piece together, he seems to owe an apology to the once incestuously close group of old school and college friends who have gathered together. While sworn enemies lay down their arms on the political front, former bosom buddies re-open hostilities.

Portrayed with a banteringly baleful, faintly satanic edge by the excellent Peter Ballance, the catalytic figure is Tim. Simmering with sardonic bitterness, this much practised shit-stirrer is determined that the truth will out about the reasons for Joseph's exile and its connection with Colm (Alan McKee), now a teacher in a Catholic school, and Colm's estranged wife Anna (a splendidly flinty Emma O'Neill), who wants the divorce he can't give her without losing his job. As the gormless, unwelcome goosberries at the resulting needle match, Thomas Lappin's Ollie, whose persistent jokes suggest an emotional age of around 11, and Maria Connolly, as the airhead he forlornly longs to bed, are both very funny.

The play's title comes from a game said to be played by Belfast ex-pats abroad, which involves going into a crowded place and roundly abusing the locals in English in the hope that they won't be able to understand. In a remote Albanian hamlet, this might be quite fun. Eventually indulged in via an orgy of obscenity by a bad-drugs-crazed Joseph, language roulette stands as a metaphoric ritual of risky revelation like the rounds of "truth or dare" the friends play. As a way of structuring themes and putting characters on the spot, games have always been handy (one thinks, say, of the party in Boys in the Band, where the gay men play the game of having to phone the person they most love). Carville, however, makes things a bit too easy for himself by shaping not just the scene but much of the play in this over ready-made manner. The proceedings lack variety just as the climactic disclosures lack surprise.

There's terrific ensemble playing, though, in Tim Loane's production for the Belfast-based company Tinderbox. And the crude, slangy dialogue, with its joshing references to the ephemera of the 1970s, its embarrassment over former idols (like Morrissey), its exuberantly God-awful puns, and its talk of the need to get "wasted", powerfully and unjudgementally evokes a hardened, cynical, pleasure-seeking generation of twentysomethings without illusions or ideals. Not a remarkable piece, but certainly an enjoyable and promising one.

Booking: 0181-743 3388.To 26 Apr

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