THEATRE / Northern exposure: Paul Taylor on Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love

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The Independent Culture
As far as tourism goes, Brad Fraser's play could do for Edmonton, Alberta, roughly what the Bible did for Gomorrha. A programme note reveals that the city's 'premier attraction' is its shopping mall, but in its depiction of the kinkiness and extreme passion curdling under surface normality, this striking drama - snappily entitled Unidentifed Human Remains and the True Nature of Love - gives Canada's northernmost city some of the sick fascination of Lumberton, the small town in Blue Velvet. Sure, you'd like to drop in for a gawp but, as with Philip Larkin and China, only if you could come back the same day.

With a mixture of flip wit and dark portentousness, the play uncovers a bleak emotional wasteland where the various inhabitants are revealed as either denying the existence of love or (in assorted sexual permutations) going the wrong way about finding it, or fighting shy of their true sexuality.

The central figure is David (the excellent Dougray Scott), a gay ex-actor working as a waiter, who, though he likes to pose as the bitchy, blase 'professional faggot' (the words are in the play), seems to have an aching need for something deeper than casual erotic encounters. Hero-worshipped by a young sexually confused fellow waiter (Tom Smith), he draws his most intense emotional sustenance from Bernie, a married man with sadistic impulses towards women. In a similar way David's straight flatmate Candy (Lesley Vickerage) finds herself pulled in two directions, fancied by both a handsome barman and an adoring lesbian.

Stalked by a serial killer who rapes and mutilates his victims, this contemporary Wasteland even has its own version of Madame Sosostris in Benita (Irene Macdougall), a whore who can read minds while she's on the job - a talent that eventually helps to confirm the killer's identity. In suspender belt and peignoir, she is also part Chorus and, mocking our numbed reaction to warped violence with her pouty cartoon-travesty of concern, treats us periodically to stories of sick-joke psychopaths and the tricks they play on babysitters. While her presence gives the play a dimension of degraded myth, the author's technique - restless cross-cutting between tartly counterpointed scenes, floating comments from spot-lit figures outside the current action, and so on - can sometimes, in Ian Brown's otherwise gripping, vividly acted Traverse production, take the doomy to mildly risible lengths.

It can't be denied that the play has its weaknesses. Candy's rival suitors, the lesbian and the barman, are two-dimensional, off- puttingly patronised figures, and the scene in which they coincide at her flat (to the undisguised glee of David) offers the most conventionally funny episode in the drama. (To have the barman refer to the futon as tofu is hitting below the belt, even if he is already married.) Nor are its thoughts on how David is to reconnect to life particularly subtle (for one awful moment near the end I thought he might even break into Sondheim's 'Being Alive'). Aids is acknowledged but downplayed.

As well as the comic snap of the dialogue, what remains impressive, though, is Fraser's ability to give you sudden arresting perspectives on spiritual emptiness and to dramatise the tensions in an encounter where the sexuality of one party drifts in and out of focus. When, for example, the serial killer demands how a man such as David, who likes to be fellated in the park by guys he can't even see, can possibly argue that the lives of the murdered women matter, it takes a few seconds before the illegitimacy of the comparison sinks in. Murder, you are made to feel, doesn't have the monopoly of disrespect for human life. Explicit, but never offensive, this production alerts you to an intriguing talent that will make you think twice before next equating Canada with boredom.

Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (071- 722 9301)

(Photograph omitted)