First Night - Artful twists redeem the cliche of memory lane

`Sacred Heart' Royal Court London
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The Independent Online
IT MIGHT soon end up as a supermarket, or a block of loft apartments, but for the quartet of characters sliding into early middle age in Mick Mahoney's new play the up-for-sale Sacred Heart church hall in London is still the repository of uneasy memories of a mis-spent youth there.

The scenario in this drama is so classically familiar it almost comes clamped within its own ironic quote marks: local boy made (pretty dodgily) good returns to home territory to stir up latent lusts and rip the scabs off old wounds, while handily allowing the dramatist to call into question the meaning of success and failure, fraudulence and authenticity and the shaky, unexamined basis of most of our lives.

It's the well-observed detail and tangled relationships within that framework that enable Mahoney's funny and perceptive play to swerve from a too well-trodden course as it alludes to an intricate shared past.

The last in a satisfying series of co-productions between the Royal Court and the National Theatre Studio, the piece is played in an unbroken 90 minutes of "real time", with the audience arranged in an L-shape round an authentic- looking set of dingy painted brickwork and grimy skylights.

Three friends are decorating the old haunt for a child's birthday party when, all sexy untrustworthiness in a Gucci suit, Michael French's excellent Gerry swans in. It's the first time Ewan Stewart's Patrick, as worn down as Gerry is sleek, has seen his former best mate since Gerry, tired of Patrick's dithering, reneged on a projected partnership 20 years ago. For one, property development and wealth; for the other an honest building trade and family.

Almost every potential cliche in the play has an artful twist that redeems it and Edward Hall's well-paced production elicits beautifully shaded performances as he signals, through the wide-boy swagger, a lost soul who has seen through success and will spend the rest of his life romantically pining for an unrecoverable youth.

Flickering between ironic amusement and sudden pain, Doon Mackichan also gives a wonderfully natural performance as Patrick's wife, Kate, who has an unresolved longing for Gerry.

It is a mark of its comic suppleness when Gerry makes an offer that exposes Patrick's inadequacy all over again, the mood is not tragic but rueful. Patrick, the life-long, small-time builder, wriggles out of the project by admitting he cannot stand the noise and mess of big building sites. Quirky touches such as that ensure Sacred Heart is no standard trudge down the obstacle course of memory lane.