VIPER'S OPIUM
Drill Hall Arts Centre, London WC1
Opened 5 March, 1997

Reviewing Viper's Opium at the Traverse last summer, I remarked that the play seemed a little inchoate. After receiving minor surgery, and away from the meltdown atmosphere of Edinburgh, it emerges as a more powerful and coherent piece, now being performed by Starving Artists in rep with the magnificent Road Movie.

The company writer Godfrey Hamilton and performer Mark Pinkosh have more or less alternated over the years between solo works for Pinkosh and two-handers. Road Movie falls into the former category, Viper's Opium into the latter, and in Kathryn Howden they have found an assured, vibrant foil for Pinkosh. As Cricket a young woman who cares so much that she keeps losing jobs for advising customers to go elsewhere Howden blithely sparkles her way past any audience doubts about her character's actions or motivations, until complications set in with her latest adopted waif and stray, Curtis, a frazzled, recovering alcoholic wannabe screenwriter.

Where Road Movie exhibits Pinkosh's skills in multiple characterisation and his ability to bring alive Hamilton's most sensuous, sensitive writing, Viper's Opium is a monkey puzzle of themes, metaphors, fragmentary remarks and conversations often either incomplete or evasive. Under Lorenzo Mele's direction, Pinkosh stammers, hesitates and dodges his way through the tangle with both naturalness and complete comprehensibility.

Curtis and Cricket are one of those foredoomed couples, who could have been perfect together if they did not both like men. (Nevertheless, the play includes what I believe is Starving Artists' first ever hetero sex scene, as the pair melt gorgeously into one another to the strains of Patti Smith's song "Dancing Barefoot".) As their respective demons gain the upper hand, however, and Curtis's unshaped need to rebuild himself clashes with Cricket's co-dependency, their parting becomes painfully ineluctable. These are people who, for whatever reason, do not fit into the mainstream, and fall prey to subconscious impulses which prevent them from fitting even with each other. Hamilton's rewritten script weaves a sad lucidity through the relationship's direct and oblique phases, its perfections and insurmountable obstacles alike.

The gay theatre of Starving Artists carries no "Queer" agenda, nor does it claim however inadvertently any privileged status for emotions or situations on the grounds of sexuality alone. Its passionate humanity speaks to all.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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