Of the wave of brilliant young playwrights that emerged in the early and mid-1990s - including Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson, Jonathan Harvey and Joe Penhall - none came from nowhere faster than Jez Butterworth.
His first play, Mojo, was propelled immediately to the main stage of the Royal Court in 1995 and won him numerous awards, including the Evening Standard for Most Promising Playwright and the Olivier for Best Comedy. The play - which was also subsequently filmed - announced the arrival of a vibrantly quirky new voice; but it has been strangely silent since.
Seven years later, the premiere of Butterworth's second play, The Night Heron, was therefore massively anticipated. This rich, dense, characterful play confirms the writer's early promise, but also suggests an unruly, unpredictable talent, who has created a work that is by turns deeply puzzling and strangely beguiling.
In the new play, Butterworth propels you immediately into an alien world (at least to my metropolitan eyes), of strange goings-on and even stranger accents, in the Cambridgeshire Fens. Two men, Wattmore and Griffin, former Cambridge University gardeners now living on the dole and whatever rabbits they can catch, hatch a plan to take in a lodger to their rural farmhouse to supplement their income. They get more than they bargain for, however, when they take in Bolla Fogg, especially when she hatches a plan of her own to help Griffin with his entry for a Cambridge University poetry competition....
These are wonderfully realised characters, wonderfully performed by Karl Johnson (Wattmore), Ray Winstone (Griffin) and especially the hilarious Jessica Stevenson (Bolla). But though Butterworth's bracing dialogue cuts a harshly funny, frequently absurd path through some bizarre interactions, and keeps the laughter ricocheting around the Royal Court throughout the evening, it's ultimately a less satisfactory play than Mojo was. Though never less than entertaining, I felt the playwright was straining for symbols to create a message out of his portrait of these odd, jumbled lives.
Director Ian Rickson, however, stages The Night Heron with his usual accomplishment to infuse it with the right atmospheric menace and eerie strangeness throughout.