Theatre Popcorn Nottingham Playhouse

The ads for Popcorn, the stage version of Ben Elton's best-selling novel, carry the warning/ come-on that "This production contains strong language and images of sex and violence." If Popcorn were simply a comic indictment of screen violence and its desensitising effects, this ploy would seem more than a little hypocritical, a News of the World-type beckoning to the tittilations of moralising prurience. In fact, Elton's intelligent, funny and highly enjoyable play aims its weapons at a quite different target.

Popcorn centres on a Tarantino-esque director, Bruce Delamitri (played by Vincenzo Nicoli), and it imagines a situation where his fiction is suddenly upstaged by brute fact. On the morning after he has received an Oscar for one of his ironic, post-modern gore fests, Delamitri finds himself held hostage in his own mansion, along with an alcoholic soon- to-be ex-wife, teenage daughter, and luscious Playboy centrefold. The sexy Southern white trash couple pointing the guns (excellent Patrick O'Kane and Dena Davis) are the Mall Murderers whose killing spree across the States has been condemned in the Press as a copycat version of the one in Delamitri's film.

Elton's main concern is not whether there is a direct link between violent art and life. The killers themselves don't actually think so, though their plan is to force Delamitri to make a penitent televised statement taking the blame for having "inspired" their brutalities. What centrally intrigues Elton is the victim-culture in the US which this couple are cannily exploiting. "Guilty but innocent: you can be both in the Land of the Free - providing you've got an excuse." By which token, O J Simpson is not a cold-blooded wife-murderer but the victim of a white police officer. The Menendez brothers aren't the abusers, they're the abused. If the newspapers posit a direct link between screen violence and real violence, then it's open to the criminal, Elton sees, to shift the blame to artists.

As he showed with Gasping, his comedy about the privatisation of air, Elton is adept at taking the logic of a situation to its blackly comic limits (and he does that right to the very last moments in Popcorn). By and large here, he avoids his tendency to practise the very thing he is attacking, which was all too evident in his play Silly Cow, a hate-filled, petty play about a hate-filled, petty female journalist. What impresses about Popcorn is its even-handedness. The white-trash killers score as many points off the moral vacuum at the core of Delamitri and his art as he scores off an America of victim support groups and contradictory subjective views of what the law is.

Laurence Boswell's production is well-acted and extremely diverting, but the violent bits look too unreal and stagey to have any real moral impact and the jokes with cinema conventions (like the Mexican stand- off gag) don't have the sick self-reflexivity that they'd have on screen. The novel has a whole dimension of sharp media comedy (the irresponsible rivalry between NBC and the police at the scene of the siege) that is inevitably lost here. The book also keeps shifting, tellingly, into the format of a film script. A movie version, with its layers of risky, ironic self-implication, would be the logical habitat for this material, even if Tarantino cannot be persuaded to play the Delamitri part.

n To 12 Oct (0115-941 9419).

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