THEATRE / Sympathy for the devil: Gaucho - Hampstead Theatre

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'I f you close your eyes, you can smell God,' says Declan (Tim McInnerny) in Doug Lucie's new play Gaucho. Which means that God's odour must be able to cut through a thick whiff of top-strength pot, the play taking place on the idyllic Greek island hideaway of the said Declan, a big-time cannabis dealer.

For some bizarre reason, never sufficiently established by the script, this elusive figure (one of the Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted) has agreed to give an extensive interview to Steph (Phyllis Logan), an old friend from Oxford days 20 years back and now a Lynn Barber-type journo who still, it seems, clutches a big candle for Dec.

Obligingly for the play's purposes, two other university chums have tagged along: Louise, a wistful therapist (Kate Fahy) and her ghastly husband Spencer (Dominic Jephcott), a public school oik who was on Dec's staircase at Oxford and has since been an Eighties boom-to-bust property dealer.

Completing the party is a bleach blond paparazzo stud (Grant Masters) who gave himself away so much (at least to this audience member) that you wondered whether he was operating on some death wish rather than under orders to use his sex appeal to get information from Dec's young, embittered Romanian prostitute wife (Julia Lane).

'I'm confused,' the latter says to the profile writer, 'you're not interested in other people except for yourself.' 'I'm a journalist, that's all,' comes the reply. The trouble with this joke is that it backfires on the play, for Lucie, to judge from this work, isn't interested in anybody except insofar as he can score preconceived points either off or through them. There are genuine patches of wit in the script but, by and large, the smug, invulnerably knowing spirit in which it's written wipes the smile from your face.

If the author sympathises with anyone it's with Dec, the drug smuggler with IRA affiliations who has called the bluff of the liberal con-trick whereby social protest, promised reform if it keeps nice and reasonable, effectively emasculates itself at the behest of the state. But even so, the kind of serious qualifications which in another play would add depth of perspective just contrive to give the impression that we are dealing in Gaucho with a sour inversion of the Hegelian concept of tragedy. Instead of right clashing with right, glibly conceived wrong clashes with wrong. The play offers only two real classes of person: those for whom morality is a 'last resort' and those (like Dec) for whom it is a 'fetish'.

Lucie directs rather well, even if a fine cast can't stop the public school guy from seeming the total punchbag he is. In a script so rigid with self- awareness, it's good to find an unintentional joke. 'You want to get your hands on Dec,' says someone near the end. But it would take all hands on deck (or on Dec) to save this self- torpedoing vessel.

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