Bush Theatre, London W12
Opened 5 November, 2004

You walk into the Bush, see the set and immediately know that this is not going to be one of playwright Richard Cameron's usual slices of poignant south Yorkshire family- or community-based naturalism. It's the orange armchair sticking skew-whiff out of a rockface that gives it away.

As the brief evening (less than two hours including interval) continues, a number of Cameron staples do become apparent. There's family, as Doncaster schoolboy David is sent to live with his aunt, uncle and their teenage daughter; there's not-quite-coming-of-age, as the quartet of younger characters span a dozen or so years in physical age but are all around the mid-teen mark mentally; there are mental problems, as David's offstage mother is hospitalised with suicidal depression and the two local ne'er-do-wells, Wink and Gobbo, are clearly neither the full shilling.

They are the "gong donkeys" of the title. It's used here as a slang term for a nutter, but also explained that it was coined by Charles Dickens in his The Lazy Tour Of Two Idle Apprentices to describe the wild, bawling drunkards seen in Doncaster during the week of the St Leger horse-race. Dickens and storytelling pervade the piece: David's uncle (a characteristic feet-of-clay performance by Edward Peel) is obsessively writing a paper for the local historical society theorising that Dickens' and Wilkie Collins' visit to the town during race week was a cover for an assignation, some time prior to their first recorded meeting, with the actress Ellen Ternan for whom Dickens later left his wife.

Wink and Gobbo are also a pair of quasi-Dickensian caricatures: their tics and turns of phrase are writ large, but at heart they are among the most human of the play's population. Wink is the fabulist, inventing his family history and all but "doing the police in different voices" (thus allowing Burn Gorman to be wonderfully eccentric behind his thick-lensed glasses), whereas Gobbo is the overgrown innocent on whom suspicion falls when a young girl goes missing (the shadow of sex-crime being another Cameronian motif).

Mike Bradwell directs the cast of six with his usual acuity. As regards Cameron's writing, this feels like the experiment it is: it's a refreshing departure, but not quite fully formed in itself. A little more explicit material about Aunt Deelie's relationship of trust with the boys would both give actress Anita Carey a deeper well to draw from and join up the last of the dots in this intriguing change of style.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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