Theatre: What Plato did next

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IT PAYS to advertise. The front of the programme says it all: "Escape Fantasies Fulfilled". "Dirty Talk A Speciality." This is more than just a cheap come-on, it is, to borrow the phrase, the real thing.

The dialogue in Mike Packer's new play is peppered with sexual expletives - trying to quote almost any of it is firmly beyond the vocabulary of a family newspaper - but what else would you expect from a tale about card boys, the lads who put up pictures in phone boxes advertising the services of prostitutes? It's a world of money and profit, easy sex and violence.

The card racket is run by Plato (a buoyant Albie Woodington) a man given to sudden bursts of dangerous anger. More importantly, he is also a ridiculously self-conscious poseur, a cliche-spouting dreamer and schemer with a penchant for bogus personal enlightenment, tree-hugging and Cat Stevens. He is like a less benign version of the mother's dippy, hippie boyfriend in Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing - and suffers from the same problem of the playwright having written a quasi-comic character who is stylistically removed from everyone else.

Plato is about to move to the country to live off a secret marijuana farm set up by his pregnant girlfriend, Kath, who will return to London and the game to earn their keep until the dope business is up and running. But when Kath abruptly changes her mind, he winds up heading out there with filthy, foul-mouthed Teddy, a Geordie old man Steptoe living (just) on a strict diet of fags and Special Brew.

The engaging and sometimes very funny central scenario of the two men's odd-couple relationship is the meat of the play, but it is surrounded by an unconvincing, slackly handled plot which fails to up the dramatic stakes. The play is also bookended by inert scenes using sketchy, under- developed characters who are really only there to set up the milieu. Even the valiant Suzan Sylvester cannot invest Kath's contradictions with enough depth, as her vacillating behaviour is dictated by the plot, rather than dramatically satisfying emotional needs.

Thanks to Willie Ross's wonderful, vital wreck of a performance, Teddy turns out to be the pivot of this inconsistent, uneven play. Whether gently adding to his tottering pyramid of beer cans, lashing out in horrified disbelief at Plato's ridiculous delusions, or merely shambling unwashed about the set, his conviction is so complete you cannot take your eyes off him. His raddled, ruddy face switches hilariously between almost explosive, silent innocence and disgusted experience. Even spitting out foul-mouthed ripostes he suggests oceans of sadness.

"Breath with fuckin' teeth, that's what words are," he cries. It's a nice line, indicative of the well-caught rhythm of the writing. But even Simon Usher's careful direction on Anthony Lamble's neatly designed set cannot paper over the cracks as Packer's writing lurches between comedy and short-winded pathos before coming down heavily on the side of sentimentality.

Bush Theatre, London W12 (0181-743 3388) to 24 Apr