Matt Charman is a young playwright with a sharp eye and a quick ear. His play, winner of the Verity Bargate award 2004, begins with some cracking dialogue - funny, quick, true-to-life and nicely differentiated for each of the characters in this enclosed male world.

Three workmates from a crash repair shop - Carl, Lionel and Chalky - await the arrival of Rick in Carl’s sparsely furnished East London flat. Rick, the fourth member of their newly-formed syndicate, is bringing the greyhound that they hope will deliver riches as well as a guaranteed good night out at the track. Also present is Carl’s brighter brother Danny (Joe Armstrong exuding world-weary loyalty) who is prevailed upon to stay. But Rick is not the next to arrive. Carl has been showing off about the syndicate and, unbeknown to the others, has invited the group’s line manager Paul (nicknamed Punchy) to join. The moment Paul, a strapping David Hounslow, enters, so does a whiff of menace.

Charman is very good on male status games. Know-all Carl (Neil Stuke) is desperate to please the aggressive Paul. While putting on a bit of a swagger as host, he constantly defers to the hard man, but, Danny realises, needs fraternal support. Stuke does well to capture the mixture of cod-authority, anxiety and latent self-knowledge in cowardly Carl; his body language speaks volumes when he answers the intercom on Paul’s arrival. When things take a nasty turn Carl’s respect for Paul is undiminished: after all the man has married an air hostess, gets free air miles and a has a games room extension.

There are a few problems with the plot and tone in that Charman seems uncertain quite how much to let the mood change in the second half, and sufficient time goes by for some very unpleasant things to happen offstage before they do. Nevertheless, there are enough surprises to keep the audience listening intently if not always on the edge of their seats. And the undertow of interest in male identity within the family, of filial and paternal responsibility, is beautifully interwoven throughout. Even the dog’s name, Sharkey’s Necklace, a bone of contention for the other syndicate members, is an elaborate tribute to Carl and Dan’s long-dead and over-idealised father.

Charman is now writer-in-residence at the Soho and working on a second piece. Its success may well be a safer bet than the winning-power of Sharkey’s Necklace.

- Heather Neill