THEATRE / The racket sport: Paul Taylor reviews Simon Donald's new play The Life of Stuff at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture
A TRIP to the Traverse to see The Life of Stuff would not be the most tactful treat you could give to somebody suffering from eczema - or who had recently had a toe amputated. But just about anyone else, with a broad enough mind, would be sure to have a ball. Simon Donald's blissfully funny new play plunges you into the dangerous world of urban racketeers. At times, you get the impression that a gangster film like The Long Good Friday has been re-written by a Scottish Joe Orton, except that with Donald, compassion keeps leaking through the comic callousness. His writing also has a more garrulous love of gags, an odd inclination towards the mystical end of scientific theory, and an acute nose for what is niffy in Thatcherism's economic and spiritual legacy to the young.

The apparent ruler of the roost is Willie Dobie (excellent Duncan Duff), a champagne-swigging, drug-snorting yuppie who has made good by doing bad. He owns tenement blocks stuffed with 'dolies' from whom he extracts exorbitant rents (paid for by the DHSS) and little favours , in return for him helping them out of the spots of 'bother' he has created in the first place. When the play opens, he has bumped off the leader of a rival racket and a party is in the offing in his newly acquired warehouse.

Flitting around the various floors and roof of this establishment, John Mitchell's impishly paced, beautifully acted production introduces you to the various flies entangled in Dobie's web. In the basement, in nothing but his underpants, and making a cack-handed attempt to shave off his sudsy hair, the most sympathetic of these is Frazer (a wonderfully desperate Brian McCardie), who is horrified to learn that the van he incinerated, supposedly so that Dobie could pick up the insurance, actually contained the stunned body of the rival. A murderer malgre lui, he is sweating on the reward of two tickets to Ibiza where he and his gay partner, Raymond, are to start a new career as exotic dancers.

The only bit of Raymond we get to see, however, is his toe which has been hacked off by Dobie's eczema-ridden henchman Leonard (Stuart McQuarrie), a youth who likes to practise with his Black and Decker on the human face. The detached toe is one of several props that are deployed with the hilarious tastelessness of the corpse's false teeth in Loot. Leonard's scab-infested articles of clothing, for example, give rise to a number of healthily sick jokes, not least when one of the girls Dobie has invited to the party is encouraged to use his cast-off Y-fronts to mop up a drug-induced nose bleed. Not knowing of his 'dermal plight', she apologises for the stain she's made and asks, 'Is it okay if I keep them?'

There is often a friendly, gregarious feel to the music of Donald's dialogue that plays interestingly against the brutal unsociability of what is being conveyed. Here is Leonard talking to someone who's just noticed Raymond's chopped-off digit: 'Only a toe. Well he was in his jim jams and I thought he'd need all his fingers for stirring and stuff' (Raymond being a chemist who has been pressurised to manufacture drugs for the party). 'My, my, haha,' says Dobie, wrapping a proprietary arm round the two younger girls he's lured to the warehouse with the promise of sex and drugs. 'It's great to see that a lifetime's dead-end disappointment and unemployability hasn't dented your sense of humour'. An underlying refusal to despair offsets the bleak inferno-like ending. The main villain's vision of mystical unity - that everything in the universe is made of the same stuff and men are composed of 'stardust' - is contradicted by his own vicious actions, but the play itself does not quite discredit it. One remembers that the two girls are not burned to death but head off home sharing nothing more addictive than a bag of wine gums.

Booking: 031-228 1404.

(Photograph omitted)