Ben Elton’s “Popcorn”

Popcorn at the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue

IT IS the morning after the Oscars in Ben Elton's provocative play Popcorn, from his hit novel. Strongly staged by Laurence Boswell, this is a satirical comedy going on hostage drama going on heated moral debate about violent movies, copycat crimes and taking responsibility.

A Tarantinoesque film director, Bruce Delamitri (small, thrusting, superb Danny Webb), is bathing in glory in his palatial Hollywood pad - all soaring pillars, bronze couches and, more sinisterly, remote-controlled steel shutters in Jane Clough's striking design. Delamitri has staggered home at dawn, triumphant King of Tinsel Town, having landed both a golden trophy and a slinky lady. The latter is Brooke Daniels (Megan Dodds), a girlie-mag model or - as she keeps insisting - an actress whose talent has not been recognised.

This is Delamitri's supreme hour. But he is in danger of coming a cropper. First Brooke, having played the titillating sex object, shows him what she is made of in an aggressive manner. Then some even nastier unexpected guests have made themselves at home while Delamitri was receiving his award.

Wayne (Patrick O'Kane, tattoos and torn denim) and his adoring girl, Scout, (Dena Davis, bedraggled, ditsy but kitted out for guerrilla warfare) are a pair of psychopaths who arrive fresh from a shooting spree, brandishing automatics.

Wayne and Scout are absurdly fawning fans yet have come, they say, to mete out Delamitri's just deserts. Their argument is that he shot "sexy" movies and - by a kind of remote control - made them imitate his crazy screen characters. Now they are out of control and not so remote.

If he is not careful he, Brooke, his wife (Debora Weston), daughter (Paula Bacon) and anyone else who calls will be bathing in gore. Maybe he should get off his artistic high horse and announce on television that he shoulders the guilt for Wayne and Scout's crimes.

One could find fault with this show. Elton's plot developments often feel engineered. The psychopaths are crudely delineated; O'Kane overdoes the aggression and turned-on gyrations. One senses a heavy-handed didactic urge behind the moral debates, though this play steers clear of simplistic judgments.

Elton is on the horns of a dilemma. Really dark comedy, scariness and tension (and the production stops short of these) could have been condemned as titillating. He gets himself in a morally tight corner by having a film director persuasively accused of producing "pornographic images of sex and death" while himself scripting a play that involves a partial strip-tease and several killings. What if - perish the thought - a psychopath watched Popcorn, went to LA, and copied its scenario?

But Elton is very smart. The violence here is not pornographically climactic, but sudden and shocking. He is deliberately intertwining his own work with Delamitri's questionable ethics and we, as voyeurs, don't walk away unblemished. Intellectually stimulating entertainment.


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