There's no impersonating class

The Strip Royal Court, London THEATRE With Phyllis Nagy, we are in the presence of a distinctive and growing talent

"Female impersonation is a rather curious career choice for a woman, Miss Coo": it's an immortal first line and a pretty clear indicator that The Strip, Phyllis Nagy's new play at the Royal Court, is not going to trade in rigid classifications. Sporting a peroxide wig and lip-synching inexpertly to Madonna's "Rescue Me", Deirdre Harrison's splendid Ava is a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. Nature having equipped her with breasts that look fake, she reckons she's stuck with being an uneasy counterfeit: "I figure, the TV camera doesn't lie but maybe a smoky scuzzy club full of drunken queens will."

The Strip has a sly, drolly impious way with notions of authenticity. At the opposite end from Ava, there's Martin (Patrick O'Kane) a muscle- bound gay fitness freak who, in his weird extremities of macho preening, is just a parodic inversion of the old sissy stereotype, who fails to see the irony of a calling a female friend a "poof" for not being able to lift weights. In one of the play's funniest sequences he meets up with a white supremacist meathead from Virginia (excellent Nicholas Farrell) who has wandered unwittingly into an Earls Court gay leather pub. Thinking he's in the sort of American bar "where a fella can hook up with his buddies, take a break from the missus and the kids", he enables Nagy to suggest some mischievous comparisons and contrasts between these two seemingly disparate kinds of men-only society.

All of which makes The Strip sound a good deal easier to follow than it is. In fact, from the play's opening image, you sense that your comprehension will remain blundering in the wake of Steven Pimlott's vibrantly acted production. As the far-flung and madly assorted personnel disport themselves in surreal proximity to each other on Tobias Hoheisel's bright, split- level set, it puts you in panicky mind of that "On and on and on and on with Ariston" advert. A sphinx dominates the right-hand of the stage: not the genuine article but the mock-up at the Hotel Luxor, Las Vegas. The play has more overlapping strands than an Altman movie, but it's at this gambling mecca that, at the time of solar eclipse, the various groups eventually converge.

The interconnected destinies of (among others) a Southern right-winger on the run in London for blowing up 27 black Baptist ministers, Loretta, his archly forward wife (a brilliant Cheryl Campbell), an obsessive lesbian journalist and a gay pawnbroker, are presided over by the svelte, sphinx- like Otto Mink (Nicholas le Prevost). Reminding you of the Duke in Measure for Measure, he tries to control the coincidence-ridden fates of these people in the interests of his forlorn, insufficiently dramatised love for white trash Loretta. But, again like the Duke, his plot keeps getting derailed. Indeed, at the close, with the fruit-machines debouching a symbolically endless jackpot in Las Vegas, the play seems to turn into a qualified celebration of the randomness Mink has tried to minimise.

The Strip could show us more of this character, who comes across as only theoretically central in the work as it stands, and Pimlott's production of a restless piece could offer more clues as to where we are at any given point. But one place we certainly are is in the presence of a distinctive and growing talent.

n To 1 April (0171-730 1745)

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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