Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court, London SW1
Opened 13 November, 2001

Well, the décor is so tasteful that there's no risk either Terence or Jonah would say, "What a dump!" and then wonder which film the Bette Davis line came from. In many other respects, though, Grae Cleugh's first full-length play Fucking Games echoes Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? In both plays, a long-established couple adept at verbal fencing play host to a younger couple who find themselves entangled; in both, there is a secret which should not be mentioned openly in this case, that Terence (who, in Alan Corduner's performance, incorporates all the cattiest elements of Albee's George and Martha) has been breaking his and Jonah's "open but only to casual flings" arrangement by having a long-term affair with Jude, who now visits them to introduce his young new catch Danny. Even, in both cases, there is an instance of "Hump the Hostess", only, this being an all-gay play in 2001, Terence's ensnarement of Danny is onstage and graphic.

Cleugh's is a strange play, particularly for the Royal Court. On the one hand, it is full of casual but blunt talk about (and occasional performance of) gay sex, snorting of coke, namedropping of music genres like speed garage and so forth; but remove these cultural references, discount the fact that the two couples portrayed are gay, and almost all of the rest of the play could have come from forty, fifty or in some cases a hundred years ago. Much of the taloned banter sounds straight out of the era of the well-made play that the Court supposedly swept away; when emotions are laid bare, thankfully for only a few minutes at a time, we are into the realm of antique melodrama. This is not the capital-Q Queer aesthetic of unashamed intensity; it's just overwriting.

Likewise, young Danny is not only a geographical outsider a Scot in this middle-class London milieu but immensely precocious for his twenty years, seeing through polite veils to the core of things in a way that transcends even dramatic device and enters the realm of authorial wish-fulfilment. Danny notices and says these things because Cleugh would like to. And the climactic O. Henry twist deploys one of the most pernicious of the semi-mythical tropes of HIV discourse.

The production is part of the Jerwood New Playwrights scheme, which has nurtured the likes of Ravenhill, Kane and McPherson. Cleugh knows how to shape his dramatic structure and his staging, but on the evidence of this piece, his voice is still a curious patchwork of antecedents rather a confident utterance of its own.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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