At first, The Drowned World seems like one of the post-apocalyptic dramas that were popular in the 1950s and 60s. The sort of thing where the fortunate survivors of a nuclear attack forage for food amongst the ruins, while they fight off a deformed gang of victims.
But after a short time, we realise that's not the case at all, and what Gary Owen is giving us is a vision of a world turned upside-down. Set in a dystopian vision of the future, he presents a world where the beautiful people of the world, instead of cluttering up the pages of Hello, are, at the same time, both adored and despised. His vision is of a people, the "citizens", who are so ugly and disgusted with each other that sexual contact is a thing of the past and where the "radiants" are persecuted with all the ferocity of a totalitarian state.
One radiant couple, Julian and Tara, flee the police and take shelter in the home of citizen Darren. The trio try to survive, but with rations for one, they are forced to sell the hair and teeth of Tara, with whom Darren becomes increasingly obsessed.
Owen's satire works on another level too, a more topical one. The hostility aimed at the radiants mirrors that aimed currently at asylum seekers. It's a hostility the radiants can't quite understand: "We'd never do this to you," says Tara. But she knows protest in vain: "I don't want to wake up and know the world hates me," she cries.
But it's Owen's nightmare depiction of the cult of the body beautiful that haunts us. Eileen Walsh's twisted cop, yearning for love (or more specifically sexual contact) is particularly compelling, although she's nearly marched by Neil McKinven's desperately lonely Darren. Josephine Butler presents us with a fine mix of defiance and anger as Tara, though Theo Fraser Steele's Julian doesn't really convince as her hunted radiant partner. He sounds more petulant public schoolboy who's lost his tuckbox, than a person fighting for survival.
Director Vicky Featherstone maintains the tension throughout, and there's some excellent music from Nick Powell that enhances the words and never detracts from them.
Owen obviously loves words. He exhibits a lyricism here few modern playwrights can reach. In many ways, The Drowned World seems more like a poem with actors than a play. But there's no disguising Owen's almost Jacobean relish for describing acts of cruelty, and his sense of what truly lies beneath the skin. It's certainly food for thought for anyone skimming through a glossy mag - just how quickly can admiration turn to hate?