Theatre: The Chic Nerds

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Inspired in part by the disappearance of Richey Edwards, lead guitarist of the Manic Street Preachers, this first full-length play by Edinburgh writer Ronan O'Donnell paints a pungently convincing portrait of a rock band midway to the big time, but having already supped rather too full of the music-biz horrors that from the outside look so like delights: the drugs, the international touring, the drugs, the media attention, the drugs...

At the same time, O'Donnell uses their story to probe behind the hip, hedonistic face the industry likes to present to the world, uncovering the baser motives and ruthless human exploitation that are often actually running the show.

The three members of the Chic Nerds - Riki (Joshua Henderson), Banji (Billy Boyd) and Wendy (Gabriel Quigley) - have been half-cajoled, half- threatened by their manager Ed into taking a sabbatical at a Highland mansion to chill out, clean up and write some new songs after a period of severe rock 'n' roll excess. The real focus of his concern is actually Riki, the lead singer and lyricist, who is clearly on the point of falling apart, the combination of mental instability, voracious narcotic consumption and high-octane lifestyle having reduced him, much of the time, to a shambling parody of the tripped-out rock star. While Ed clearly hopes to get Riki sufficiently under control to be able to market his Richey Edwards/Kurt Cobain-esque attributes as a new bit of the "product", Riki's self-destructive disintegration - or desire to escape - turns out to be far more real, and determined, than he can possibly comprehend.

All four actors turn in bracingly vigorous, sharply defined performances, the lively interplay of personality and wisecracking banter providing an engrossingly dense basis for the action. O'Donnell's dialogue, too, excels: fluently colloquial and contemporary - even in this most modish of contexts - it's generously studded with illustrative tics and nuances of character, comedy and background; tightly wrought stuff which the cast evidently relish. Theatrically, too, the piece displays a remarkable assurance for a debut outing (though obviously Traverse director Philip Howard shares the credit here), creating plenty of spatial dynamics despite the essentially static setting, blending sequences of realism, flashback, montage and hallucination with a boldly ambiguous hand to keep us, frequently, uncertain where one ends and the other begins.

The joins do show, occasionally, in the characters' periodic forays into the poetic or philosophical, which come across as rather too self-consciously profound given the relentlessly flip tone of their customary exchanges. Their personal subtexts, too - Banji's underlying jealousy of Riki, Wendy's search for a coherent sense of self - are sometimes worn a little too conspicuously on their sleeves, as is O'Donnell's fascination with the Edwards story. There's a discernible slackening of momentum during the second act - the two hours could probably be trimmed to 90 minutes, dropping the interval - as we wait to see exactly what form Riki's eventual crash'n'burn will take, but the subtlety and flair with which O'Donnell unpicks the intricate, perilous symbiosis between creativity, identity, affirmation and commerce, which forms the tightrope along which perhaps all successful artists must walk, is mightily impressive none the less.

To 7 March. Box office: 0131-228 1404.