Bush Theatre, London W12
Opened 24 February, 2003

Doug Lucie's The Green Man, set in "the only pub for miles that ain't a theme pub", is now running at the Bush Theatre, above a pub which spent most of the 1990s as the Fringe & Firkin. No doubt the irony appealed to both the Bush's current artistic director when booking this production and to his predecessor but one, Simon Stokes, who directs it.

In the bar of the Green Man, four men spend the small hours awaiting the arrival of their friend with the bait and tackle for a carp-fishing weekend. As it becomes apparent that they will miss the golden hour of pre-dawn fishing, they drink and talk. Well, not so much talk as duel verbally, in the case of the two most diametrically opposed temperaments, who also happen to be the heaviest drinkers.

Mitch is the local Mr Big, a builder of shoddy "luxury executive homes", a Freemason, the employer of two of the others and a man so comprehensively unpleasant in his views that he almost goes right through supreme implausibility and out the other side. Almost. Lou is superficially stoical and content with his much more modest lot, but suppresses a deep vein of fury: at his failed marriage, at Mitch, possibly at his own lack of drive. Landlord Bernie (the discreetly excellent John Ramm) and young Greg (plus, in one scene, Bernie's wife) try to negotiate their way through Lou and Mitch's crossfire, and find drink is a necessary anaesthetic.

Although set in a vastly different social culture an unspecified location in south-eastern England as opposed to Belfast at the end of the Troubles Lucie's play operates in much the same personal territory as Owen McCafferty's Closing Time, seen last autumn in the National Theatre's Loft space. Both pieces portray a tight knot of increasingly sodden pub "fixtures" abrading against each other and revealing their respective failures and paralyses. But where McCafferty's play was remorselessly bleak and dreary, the fireworks arranged by Lucie offer more dramatic excitement but less of the dull ring of truth.

Mitch's social Neanderthalism, and in particular his misogyny, are beyond caricature; in Danny Webb's slurring, barking portrayal, he is a straw man the size of the Cerne Abbas giant. Despite our hatred of the character, Lucie denies us the easy option of seeing him definitively bested by the more thoughtful Lou; instead, we grow frustrated with Lou's refusal to do more than yap back, and are eventually rewarded with an insight into his own overtly unsympathetic side. For dramatic justice is not what this play is about, and the length of time it takes us to twig fully is a testimony to Phil Daniels' slow-building performance as Lou, beginning almost with the serenity of an acid casualty and subsiding into the sozzled sourness of self-prescribed mediocrity.

Although the predominant tone of the dialogue is one of mordant humour, in the end The Green Man is one of those plays that matter-of-factly deny us any glimmer of hope. (Put it this way: when Lucie namechecks a 1970s songwriter in one scene, he chooses Nick Drake as his emblem of transience and lack of closure.) We admire it without, for more than passing moments, enjoying it. Even when a new era dawns as in Green Man myths, it's not at all for the better. Just like the real world: the pub beneath the Bush Theatre is now an O'Neill's, but when Stokes began his tenure there in the 1970s, it was a genuine London Irish pub. There's grim irony to match the play.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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