Reality doesn't live up to a fantasy

First Night: Shaved Splits Assembly Rooms Edinburgh
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The Independent Online
"WARNING! THIS play contains (porno)graphic sexual language," the Shaved Splits programme shrieks.

With a record 1,309 shows competing for attention on the Fringe this year, it would be more peculiar to find one that wasn't being pimped with the promise of salacious language.

While you can't accuse Pontoon Productions of getting their audiences in under false pretences, this little known work by Sam Shepard - Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright, actor and cool cat - now given its belated European premiere, is not above the charge of gratuitousness.

At the beginning of the piece - hailed as "a shocking and titillating sensation" by the New York Times when it was first staged in 1970 - we find crude-talking Miss Cherry (Elizabeth Perry) lounging in her pink boudoir in her negligee, engrossed in an erotic novel she has plucked from the piles that lap at the foot of her bed.

One distinctly pornographic - and distasteful - scenario serves to underline, rather than counteract, Miss Cherry's own sexual frustration.

With her wealthy husband absent, she can only get her thrills by taunting her effeminate servant Wong, her mute masseur and Chunky Puke, a salesman with a suitcase full of titles like Moist Dungeon.

Civil war seems to have broken out in the unnamed American city outside, and before long a bleeding, bearded, rifle-wielding maniac called Geez storms this "castle" of bourgeois ennui and holds its princess hostage. Sex is the last thing on his mind.

Director Matthew Gray and his cast successfully bring out the humour in Shepard's dream-like meeting between the haves and have-nots, and the fantasies that sustain them.

Geez is a typical Shepard male, albeit with hints of the demented Vietnam veteran about him: a dysfunctional soul, in limbo between the wild west of Hollywood and dreams of sexy, rock'n'roll suicide. However, having set up the situation, the dialogue fails to deliver real tension, even when Cherry's capitalist pig of a husband shows ("You're being screwed up the arse by your own life," he is told).

The most captivating section of the play proves to be the slow, silent Balinese dance performed by Mavin Khoo's liberated Wong, the closest any of the characters gets to the throes of ecstasy.

Shepard went to London in search of inspiration the year after Shaved Splits was staged and you can see him running out of gas here. That it's taken this long to reach us is no great wonder. For Shepard enthusiasts, then. Or readers of Penthouse.

Dominic Cavendish