The Bush Theatre, London
You could describe as a poor man's Closer. Doug Lucie has said that he had the idea for his latest play long before Patrick Marber's award-winner surfaced a year ago, but the similarities between the two are remarkable. Both plays take place over roughly the same period - Lucie's between the last two general elections; Marber's between 1993 and 1997. Both plot the relationships of a middle-class quartet of two men and two women on the tail-end of their youth: a downward spiral of selfishness, betrayal and despair. But while Closer is a neatly constructed cat's cradle of perfidious affections, is more of a catapult, pelting its audience with images of women as fickle bruisers and men as long-suffering victims.
This is not to hold Closer up as a model, or to suggest that Lucie has tried, and failed, to copy it. Marber hardly has a monopoly on imposing a tight chronological structure on something as messy as the sex war. The chances of getting a West End transfer may be slim, but it is not without snappy dialogue, moments of real poignancy or an overall momentum. Lucie still possesses the ability to expose vile behaviour that he displayed in his bilious hits (Fashion, Grace, Progress). The cast, directed by Mike Bradwell, is a strong one, confident enough to give time to even the most inconsequential exchanges. The set design by Es Devlin is sleek: a single moveable screen alternating between two shelving units enables one interior to double as two flats. What a comparison between the two plays does show is how careful a playwright has to be to avoid making a sequence of highlights from ordinary lives look like shorthand for a grand thesis. Where it wants to be stark, often comes across as manipulative and antagonistic. Even misogynistic.
Although there are a slew of references to help locate the six scenes in the Nineties (a TV shows Major's grinning mug at the start; there's a blast of D:Ream come the end), the main determinant of behaviour is not cultural or political but biological. Women are from Mars, men are heading towards an evolutionary black hole. During the course of the play Shelley attaches herself, leechlike, to a former alcoholic guitarist called Mick, has a child by him, then dumps him, driving him to bankruptcy and over the edge. She is supported by her unquestioningly loyal mate Ros, whose partner, Jim, later finds himself in a similar situation - only, in this case, because the couple have failed to have a child.
Sam Graham as Mick and Reece Dinsdale as Jim both powerfully communicate a sense of outrage and impotent anguish when the truth finally dawns that they have been taken for a ride, but why it takes them so long is unclear. Susannah Doyle plays Shelley as inscrutably as she can - chainsmoking furiously, eyes sealing up with what could be laughter or malice - but she is rarely given the opportunity to present the character in anything other than a damning light. When Ros (Miranda Foster) momentarily wakes up to the deviousness of her best friend, she says: "You're forgetting something, Shelley. I'm not a man. I don't have a vested interest in believing all your crap." I doubt whether many audience-members, other than members of rabid anti-feminist groups, will be finally persuaded that whether love is a crown of thorns or bed of roses is a question of gender.
To 20 June. Bush Theatre, London, W12 (0181-743 3388)Reuse content