THEATRE / Six ways to leave your lover: Paul Taylor reviews Iain Heggie's new sextet of short plays The Sex Comedies

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The Independent Culture
Imagine the situation: you're on for a bout of phone-sex, raring to go, when you discover that the person at the other end of the line speaks with an impenetrable Glaswegian accent. Well, you'd be there till the cows came home. (Title for the sketch: Come Again?) This is not, in fact, one of the half dozen items in The Sex Comedies, Iain Heggie's six enjoyable quickies on the comic quirks of the erotic drive now playing at the Old Red Lion. The idea, however, pops into my head for two relevant reasons.

The first is that the only problem I've had with Mr Heggie's work in the past has been an auditory one. A Wholly Healthy Glasgow, his play about a fitness zealot joining the staff of a health club and putting paid to all the financial fiddling and gay nookie there, struck me as one of the funniest plays of the Eighties. But it was only when I got the text home that I fully understood what it was I'd been falling about at. Here, though, in Heggie's charmingly acted production, every (often unprintable) word makes a distinct impression on Sassenach ears. And secondly, while it's true that there's no actual phone sex in these playlets, the emphasis in the majority of them is very much on people working each other up by the remote-control of speech - on sexual fantasy as a weapon in the power game.

This can be seen in The Reading Room, in which a female student gets the better of the Sun-ogling youth at the next table who starts talking dirty to her and claiming that they once had a relationship. She simply hijacks his sotto voce fantasy and parlays it towards more arousing heights, in a manner that causes him to make a humiliating exhibition of himself under the reproving glare of the librarian.

In The Education of a Gentle Pervert, the older, timid shorts- socks-and-sandals gay at a pick-up spot is manoeuvred with verbal promises into posing for some intimate snaps by a youth whose kink turns out, alas, to be a preference for photos over persons. There's a lovely moment when the boy stares with an almost menacingly close soulfulness into the other man's eyes, while at crotch level his camera is flashing away like there's no tomorrow. 'I find you very attractive,' he says as he walks off with the film.

The German playwright, Botho Strauss, has a good sketch in which a blood-spattered suicide and the Void he has sought meet up at last like two wildly ill- matched contacts from a lonely hearts ad, doomed to be companions for eternity. Set in a restaurant, Total Strangers, Heggie's best piece here, also focuses on a baleful blind date, but by exuberantly disrupting the usual protocols of the lonely hearts encounter, Heggie dredges up all its underlying anxieties and indignities.

'Bill would have been a total stranger,' remonstrates his pushy, insinuating substitute (Billy McColl) when the Woman (Siobhan Redmond) objects that he does not match up to Bill's photograph: 'Bill would have been a prepared total stranger,' she argues. The man then takes a silky relish in explaining how her photo was passed along the chain of Bill's scoffing, uninterested friends, until it came 'as a joke' to him. He's a nicer man, he explains, going for personality rather than looks (a statement, obviously, that no nice man would make). Just how unnice he is becomes painfully plain when he uses smutty fantasy first to arouse and then drop the woman.

The rest of the pieces concern people who know one another already, but, given the evening's most memorable moments, the show could be sub-titled The Discomfort of Strangers.

'The Sex Comedies' continue at the Old Red Lion, John Street, London EC1 until 30 Jan (071-837 7816).