Casualties of the classification wars

THEATRE The Censor / Surfing Finborough Theatre, London
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The Independent Online
Anthony Neilson earned himself the title "Bad Boy Controversialist of British Theatre" with works like Penetrator, a black, tense comedy about the kind of homophobia that is the twisted product of repressed homosexual desires. That play, with its maniacal, knife-wielding squaddie and his horrific tales of systematic thuggery and non-consensual buggery in the ranks, prompted one commentator to write that, while he was no fan of censorship, here was "a case for self-censorship". Cut to Mr Neilson's latest drama, which focuses on a film censor and his relationship with a young female director who wants him to pass her hard-core movie.

In Blue Murder, Peter Nichols recently produced a sharp comedy that presented the old Lord Chamberlain's office, in its last days in 1967, as a farcical hotbed for precisely the kind of shenanigans and language it blue-pencilled in plays. But the piece wound up contending that the removal of censorship has been bad for artists, because restrictions are paradoxically freeing (a proposition surely truer, though, of form than of content).

Neilson's The Censor homes in on a situation that might itself be the basis of a porn movie. Young, repressed, anally retentive, unhappily married Scots censor (an excellent Alastair Galbraith) is confronted by Miss Fontaine, a disconcertingly composed, attractive and implacable female director (Raquel Cassidy). She's determined to change his mind about banning her film and, to that end, soon has her busy hands down his trousers. So far, so standard porn set-up. But Miss Fontaine assures us that these come- ons are also part of a more philosophical mission to make the censor see the "deeper human meaning" in the relentless sexual activity in her film.

Played behind prophylactic gauze and within a red neon frame, Neilson's finely judged production, with its long, loaded pauses, brings out all the comic tension and intensity in the couple's engagements - counterpointed by short scenes of marital misery between the censor and his faithless wife. But, as the censor himself says, it's impossible to imagine Miss Fontaine anywhere except in his office. If her reality weren't apparently vouched for in the end, you'd be tempted to interpret her as the fantasy projection of a man who has had to watch too much sex in coldly anatomical terms and who is over-compensating with a daydream woman who can see entire CVs in the sex act. "Could you tell that man's previous girlfriend was Asian and that the woman was brought up in care?" Easy-peasy, I'm sure, if you know what you're looking for.

On the same bill as The Censor is Robert Young's Surfing, a funny and mountingly touching piece about a young jilted woman who, messing around with her ex-lover's computer, stumbles accidentally upon, and then into, his E-mail correspondence with another female friend. Pretending to be him, she starts communicating via the Internet with this unknown quantity and is eventually drawn into collaborating on erotic fantasy stories. This virtual relationship develops into an intuitively quasi-lesbian romance which, though the pair never meet, survives the discovery that neither is what the other believed. In Lisa Goldman's staging, Lizzie McPhee plays both, skilfully shifting between eager northern openness and the refined heartache of maturity on a computer-screen set that resembles a dinky swimming pool.

To 26 April: `Surfing' 7pm, `The Censor' 8.30pm, Finborough Arms, 118 Finborough Rd, London SW10 (0171-287 1231)