"I was reading a grippin' article in the Independent - that is my chosen organ - yesterday, all about diminishin' interest in London as a settin' for contemporary novels. Didja see it?" asks pansexual Paddington- dwelling Trevor in Clocks and Whistles, an attractive first play by Samuel Adamson which is premiered now at the Bush. Third and last in the "London Fragments" season, it's a piece which shows that, whatever may be true of the novel, some of the strongest recent work by our younger playwrights has been firmly plugged into the tribal culture of the capital.
The bewitching Kate Beckinsale, who plays a young King's Road-type actress in Dominic Dromgoole's excellent production, has only just completed an engagement at the Royal Court in Nick Grosso's Sweetheart, a piece which also trains a sharp eye on the village life of metropolitan twentysomethings. Like that play, Clocks and Whistles hops around London postal districts on a stylised, largely monochrome set (here eau de Nil with a red reverse), a design that designedly leaves it up to the writing to establish parochial identifiers.
Neil Stucke's bedenimed, Orton-esque, cockily leering Trevor looks as though he might have been born in a sleazy Paddington telephone box. It emerges, though, that he was brought up on a farm in Devon. Asked where she originally came from, Melanie Thaw's middle-aged artist affects superior airiness: "I can't remember now." Clocks and Whistles is amusingly alive to the fact that London is full of self-reinvented non-Londoners.
The play fixes on the fashionable topic of sexual and emotional confusion. Henry, a young publisher whose non-scene squareness and awkward decency are beautifully caught by John Light, loves both Trevor (with whom he occasionally sleeps) and posh, pettish, beguiling Anne, a young actress with a damaged background and an enigmatic sugar daddy, Alec, who is played with such staring-eyed overkill by Michael Cashman that he loses all his notional menace. Anne loves Henry, too, when she needs platonic support or help with wrapping up first-night presents. But she goes to bed with Trevor, whom she none the less declares to be "one of those pointless... pervs".
Kate Beckinsale brilliantly signals the pain and lostness that lie behind Anne's brittle, manipulative, prattling charm. Trevor at one point likens her to Sally Bowles, remarking to Henry that "Sally Bowles was a bitch". Henry remonstrates that he likes Sally Bowles, whereupon Trevor makes a quick U-turn: "God, mate, yeah. The perfect woman." It's a good example of the play's knowing, allusive comedy. For, though Henry affects to despise such camp as the huge blow-up picture in Trevor's bathroom of Moana de la Miner, "a lip-synching Minnelli wannabe", we deduce he likes Sally Bowles because, as played by Minnelli in Cabaret, she was more drag-queen and gay icon than fully-fledged woman and hence not such a huge sexual leap for the Michael York character. For the gay man who wants to take a crush for a woman beyond the platonic stage, Anne's persona is not so accommodating.
Clocks and Whistles is not without blemishes, but it's a promising play and, as such, a fitting close to Dominic Dromgoole's rich and memorable period here as artistic director.
n To 27 April. Booking: 0181-743 3388
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