Theatre: Treachery on the way to Tooting

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The Independent Culture



IN NICK Grosso's last play, Sweetheart, north London postal districts were flashed on to the set, as the shiftless charmer-hero bed-hopped across the map in an indefinite postponement of finding a deeper purpose.

In Real Classy Affair, Grosso's latest very funny take on twentysomething lad culture, an altogether more epic geographic leap is projected: from North London to darkest Streatham. To the consternation of his ludicrously sharp-suited drinking pals, the nice, naively trusting Stan (excellent Nick Moran) plans to decamp there with his flirty discontented wife Lou (a sullenly seductive Liza Walker).

Stan and Lou intend to open a bistro. Lest we fail to appreciate the momentousness of this news, one of the characters reports that "a hush descended... all the way to Tooting."

Short of persuading the footballer Michael Owen to make his acting debut here with a full-frontal sex scene, it's hard to see how the director, James Macdonald, could have assembled a company that is more hip, hot and happening than the one in this meticulous, beautifully droll production.

Luminaries from This Life, Closer, and current movies Elizabeth and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, converge on Rob Howell's witty revolving disc of a set. Fortunately, the material has, by and large, few problems in living up to the cast.

Training a sceptical eye on the supposed strength of male bonding, the play focuses on the rivalry and treacheries brought to the surface by the married couple's mooted move.

There's the sensitive question, for example, of which friend will have the honour of hosting the farewell "do". There are two contenders, and it's not Stan who is going to decide. Joseph Fiennes's swaggering Billy, with a visage so long and vulpine that he makes your average El Greco sitter look like a chubby-chops, has a platonic, meet-for-coffee friendship with Lou. He also harbours an Iago-like resentment of his rival which seems to date from childhood: cocky "Mr Snakeskin shoes" Tommy (Jason Hughes), who sneers that love "ain't a hundred percent cotton". In his case, relations with Lou have evidently pushed beyond the platonic stage.

In highly patterned scenes, which switch between the lads' pub and the marital flat where Lou appears to be doing the whole of Finsbury Park's ironing, the position of the characters goes through ironic reversals.

It's fair to say that you can see most of these coming a mile off but where the play is surprising and beadily well observed is in the throwaway humour and diagnostic deadpan of the exchanges and in the male dialogue's shifts between strutting, grand eloquence and lavatory-wall demotic. "You're being a bit deep today," remarks Tommy after an outburst of psychologicalperceptiveness from Lou. "Well, it's all that daytime telly," she responds, without irony.

Grosso can also sustain a good running gag. For example, the one in which Jake Wood's Joey, the kind of lad who can't go to a bar to get drinks without having an adventure on the way, improbably, but logically, winds up crammed into a young girl's "Fancy a Fuck?" crop-top T-shirt, nursing a nasty head wound, and with his pockets cascading with loose change. All round, this is a pretty classy affair.

To 7 Nov (0171-565 5000)