Theatre: Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club Contact Theatre, Manchester

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The Independent Culture
Marti is happy to be addressed as "love", even "doll", but never "lad". "It takes years to get this camp," he says, and he's not about to go back. Born into scallywaghood 33 years ago, the apprenticeship has been long and assiduous, from the memorising of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford movies, through the leaving of Liverpool, to polymorphous encounters in darkened gay clubs. It is an identity he has had to assemble from hand- me-down stereotypes and his own, hard-knock wits. It provides him with a carapace thick enough to muffle his heartbeat, but it is useless to prevent the internal bleeding.

Now he is in London, babysitting his kid brother Shaun, who has a bad case of the mopes in the lengthening absence of his Juliet. There is a sibling savagery to their perpetual joshing - verbal pillow-fights with ill-concealed razor blades. They fight because brothers do, but also because Shaun's self-deceiving, straight romanticism is no less artificial or debilitating than Marti's determined refusal of love.

Despite its blood-speckled conclusion, this central conflict is not pursued in Jonathan Harvey's new play with the kind of fraternal ferocity of a Sam Shepard. In fact, its seriousness only gradually emerges from the comfort blanket of a thoroughly genial, and often hilarious, bedsit comedy in which Harvey is so evidently delighted to dwell upon the associate members of his lonely hearts club. Downstairs is George (Lorraine Brunning), an English teacher and an enthusiast for good causes in a world whose naughtiness can never dent her naivety. The satire is relentless, though we are bound to be touched by her gaucheness, especially the way she jumbles unfamiliar vocabulary in a vain effort to gel with her neighbours. Upstairs is Elizabeth Berrington's Clarine ("like they put in swimming- baths?" asks Marti), though she may be Sharon, or something else entirely - she can't remember. She can sing and strum "Amazing Grace", though only to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun". She is lucky to have this bit of the community to care for her. Thirdly, there is Dean (James Bowers), a mouthy Essex transvestite, whose matter-of-fact transformation from Fifi in leatherette to a McDonald's supervisor is not to be missed.

All of this, with excellent character acting throughout, is hugely entertaining.Only towards the end does the brothers' struggle dominate. Now the acting of Tom Higgins as Marti and Scot Williams as Shaun fills the stage. Williams, an emotional Narcissus in Nikes, is convincing in every detail, and I have never seen Tom Higgins give a more developed, confident and exuberant performance. John Burgess's direction and Jackie Brooks's exactly observed design give the whole show drive and panache. This co-production by Contact and English Touring Theatre is their first collaboration, and ETT's first foray into new work. Harvey's rich, if rather diffuse, play amply rewards both innovations.

n To 14 Oct. Booking: 0161-274 4400. Then on tour. Details on 01270 501800