A Buyer's Market, Bush Theatre, London

A ragbag of creaky, cheap tricks

Rhoda Koenig
Sunday 02 March 2014 05:20

Appropriately, this Russian Easter confection makes one think of an egg – a curate's. Unlike the unhappy cleric's dish, Tony Bicât's play has good parts that are unaffected by the tainted areas, but it isn't nearly as tasty as it is painted.

The problem, to switch metaphors, lies in the play's mongrel nature. A Buyer's Market is not, as one reviewer has said, a comedy-thriller – a normally tiresome genre that recently has produced some stunning successes by making the comedy pitch black. It is, instead, that dependably sterile crossbreed, earnest satire. When a swaggering Russian gangster trains his sights on an English novelist eager to be corrupted, both men are sent up for their vanity and hypocrisy. But when the gangster's sidekick, a young man from an unnamed land the Russians have invaded (the time is 1995), the play goes all mushy about his resentments and frustrations, and gives him a nice girl to hold his hand. It's a bit like having a sex farce interrupted with messages from the Health and Safety Executive.

The scene is a £1m penthouse – at least, it was, but the price has been lowered and the furniture included and, though the owner talks like someone secure in his grandeur, his face gives him away. The mobster, who calls himself PG Wodehouse, agrees to the asking price, and even produces it in cash – his dogsbody, "Ernest Hemingway", carries the suitcase.

But when buyer and seller are left alone, the talk turns to a very different kind of transaction. The author of best-selling potboilers has a prissy wife who is keeping him on a very short lead. The Russian suggests that he could, at a reasonable price, help the writer out. "Life is still cheap. It's the one area of modern life where they seem to have inflation under control."

The gangster's matter-of-fact loucheness and the novelist's pretensions ("My hands are dirty, but they're dirty with the clay of life") combine for some enjoyable, broad comedy that hints at a nasty role reversal. But the scenes between the young man and a shallow, naive girl from the estate agency are as creaky as the mechanisms by which each pair of characters leaves the stage to the other. The henchman says that, like his countrymen, he is an unwilling tool of the Russian, who holds his passport; he wishes that the world were a different place and that he could run off with the pretty estate agent. All that's missing is a pianist in the corner playing "As Time Goes By".

Gemma Bodinetz's production emphasises the play's disjointedness. Emma Cunniffe is the vacuous but terribly nice Sloanette, Anthony Calf the overwrought slime-ball author. In the best and biggest part, Matthew Marsh makes an unsettlingly comic gangster – I particularly liked the way, left alone with a hammer, he hefted, then wiped it. But his casually sinister accent and his sidling motions gradually become tiresome, turning from a characterisation into a bag of tricks, as the play slips from drama into broken-backed comedy routine.

To 4 May, 020-7610 4224

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