Theatre: Deep Space

The Bush, London

Deep Space, a new play by Alex Johnston, has as its epigraph a wonderful line from a WB Yates poem: Great hatred, little room. The room where all this contempt is compacted is in a scuzzy Dublin flat shared by a couple of Unlikely Lads from the not-so-"Loaded" generation. Forming this disaffected duo, there's skinny intellectual Keith, an unemployed Art History graduate (played by the author) and Jaco (sic) (Patrick Leech), odd-job electrician and minor league stud.

Other than attempts to prolong a student-like existence beyond the point where it can actually be pleasurable, they don't do much together. A typical exchange - "Can you turn up the volume?" "There's no remote" "Any particular reason?" "You can't have everything ...." - indicates the kind of armchair- bound mutual inertia into which they have sunk. Things begin to heave beneath the surface, though, when Jaco meets and fancies Keith's old friend Fionnuala. Keith claims that (a) she's a lesbian and (b) he has no sexual interest in her himself. Neither of these avowals is true. In his eerily contained and understated way, Keith is obsessed. When his two friends take up with each other, he listens to Jaco's smug bulletins with a masochistically deadened, yet secretly determined, demeanour. You brace yourself for a nasty conclusion.

Johnston has a sharp ear for the curt, low-key rallies of sarcastic male competitiveness. Talking about how a DJ gave Fionnuala some drugs at a party, Jaco describes this as "a fairly Christian thing to do to a total stranger." "Virtually Samaritan" agrees Keith, who has a neat line in swift, subversively supportive responses. "House proud," he remarks admiringly when Jaco relates how a new female conquest initiated things by stripping to the buff, causing him to drop his wine glass, and then spent five minutes fussily clearing up the mess before getting back to business. "Very," concurs Jaco who tends to lose his sense of the ridiculous when presenting himself as the innocent victim of his own sexual irresistibility.

A character in Patrick Marber's current hit, Closer speculates on what would happen if women could see "one minute of our home movies, the shit that slops through our minds every day." But plays by Nineties men about the unloveliness of Nineties men can exude a rather off-putting sanctimonious self-satisfaction. Deep Space maintains a jokey laddish tone until near the end; right from the start, though, you can see it's going to turn into an exercise in fashionable self-hatred. In intercut direct-to-audience speeches, the two characters reflect on sex and gender - Jaco's lipsmacking, honestly crude pre-occupation with the basics contrasted with the crumbling high-mindedness of Keith who starts with thoughts about Foucault and the social construction sexuality, but then admits that he simply longs to rip Fionnuala's clothes off and "fuck her on the table".