Theatre Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club Donmar Warehouse, London

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The Independent Culture
Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club contains one of the most gut- wrenching love scenes between two men ever put on stage. If I tell you that the author is Jonathan Harvey, you will assume that the participants are gay, but you'd only be half right. The men are, in fact, brothers and 23-year-old Shaun, the younger by 10 years, is wholly straight.

Scouse refugees in London have become for Harvey what daffodils were for Wordsworth. A subsidiary specialist topic is the kind of strainedly festive social occasion that lurches towards disaster because of cross- purpose mating moves and resurrected resentments. In Boom Bang-a-Bang, a camp Eurovision-night party foundered on the jagged wreath of a community- splitting bereavement. In Rupert Street, the painful past heaving under the hilarious, awkward surface of the present is more harrowingly traumatic and psychologically intriguing.

As a small boy, Shaun had been "weaned on queenery", since, with their parents preoccupied by, respectively, drink and drudgery, brother Marti had effectively been his mother, drilling him in gay cinema lore (he's word-perfect doing, say, the girdle scene from All About Eve) as though it were the catechism. Their closeness, though, didn't stop Shaun, at 16 and under "peer pressure", from queer-bashing Marti and landing him in casualty. A long period of estrangement has ended, but only, Marti bitterly suspects, because his brother wants to impress his new, right- on, mixed-race girlfriend. While she is visiting family in Barbados, Shaun begins to go to pieces and ugly things start to crawl out of the woodwork.

A sort of Who's Afraid of Betty Davis? is complicated, in John Burgess's superb production, by the interventions of the women who live in the flats above and below Shaun's and the tough-nut transvestite (James Bowers) who changes from suspender belt to McDonald's uniform as though it were the most normal thing in the world. There's a side-splitting sequence where Lorraine Brunning's wonderfully eager-to-be-cool little teacher, for whom demos are a kind of singles club, thinks that Elizabeth Berrington's brilliant, mentally out-to-lunch Clarine is Zoe Wanamaker. As Marti, Tom Higgins is funny and affecting, but it's a strength of this excellent play and of the outstanding performance by Scot Williams, who twists with an awful tensed-up mix of shame, desperate love and bitterness as Shaun, that the character who breaks your heart is straight.

n To 25 Nov. Booking: 0171-369 1732

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