Theatre: On the game for a laugh

THE BACKROOM THE BUSH, LONDON
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The Independent Culture
SHOCK NEWS: Madonna is appearing at the Bush. OK, it's not La Ciccone herself. This Madonna (a gloriously over-excitable James Lance) is the Kylie Minogue- obsessed, screaming Spanish queen in Adrian Pagan's disgracefully funny debut play and although she's in charge of the laundry don't expect a re-run of the washerwoman from Toad of Toad Hall: we're in a male brothel. For the sake of the box office, I'd love to say that this will send Conservative councillors into a lather, but Pagan's deft handling of his scenario is so hilarious that laughter is likely to drown out prejudice.

As the play opens, the boys are lined up so that an offstage punter can check out their specific talents: active, passive or versatile. There's none-too-bright Australian Craig (Luke Healy), trying and dismally failing not to be camp; increasingly desperate Paul (Darren Tighe); deliciously ridiculous deputy madam Dallas (a tremendously funny Patrick Baladi), all brawn and bravado, little brain and absolutely no sense of humour. "My abs are that sprung I can lick my own belly." Then there's the bona fide fake East End barrow boy Sandy (Justin Salinger), really a 31-year-old student looking for love in precisely the wrong place who takes a dangerous fancy to ex-Harrovian newcomer Charlie (Ben Price).

It's a dog-eat-dog world and, as in all good farces, Pagan keeps upping the dramatic stakes, using plot twists and power games built up from forbidden relationships between the lads and secret plans to set up on their own, not to mention that good old dramatic ploy - blackmail. After all, their officious madam Paul has a boyfriend who's a closeted England under-21 footballer.

As Dallas threatens at every opportunity (to ever-increasing laughs) "You may not like it but I speak the truth... and sometimes the truth hurts." Bizarrely, we're not a million miles from the highly politicised Seventies- style workplace plays, but with far more laughs.

The writing is not completely amoral but it is refreshingly non-judgemental. Pagan never descends to giving a sociological lecture about the dangers of being on the game. Instead, he's written a sex comedy in which we see almost no sex, but ideas and angles zip by in enviably assured group scenes, the breathlessly-paced, witty dialogue complemented by Jonathan Loyd's beautifully acted, perfectly choreographed production which finds seven actors racing around the tiny stage to hilarious effect.

Terrence McNally played similar games in The Ritz, his 1975 farce set in a New York gay bathhouse, complete with its own mad Spanish character. That got bogged down in the absurd convolutions of its plot, whereas Pagan's weak point is his tendency towards over-sincerity when abandoning one-liners to focus on the relationship between Sandy and Charlie and the writing can't carry the necessary emotional weight.

However, it's impossible not to warm to a play that gets away with a retort as knowingly daft as "That's the nuclear power station calling the pedal bin filthy."

To 14 Aug (0181-743 3388)

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