Drummers at the Ambassadors

Simon Bennett's Drummers, which premiered at this year's Edinburgh Festival, puts us in the doubtful company of a bunch of joshing, foul-mouthed Sarf London felons. With its scenes of homosexual rape, violence and drug abuse, it is undoubtedly strong stuff. But in the event, this turns out to be more riveting than distasteful, more didactic than shocking. Through the characters of the two petty thieves, Ray and Barry, and their fence Pete, we're provided with a rare insight into the behaviour, psyche, and sheer desperation of the inner-city underclass.

Bennett is himself an ex-con, and a good deal of the play's appeal lies in his ear for dialogue - he seems to have captured the speech patterns, rhyming slang, and vernacular of this particular group of street-savvy 'geezers' down to a T. Even the title of the play is a piece of thieves' parlance: a 'drum' is a house and 'drummers' are burglars.

The protagonist, Ray (Peter Sullivan), prides himself on being one of the best 'drummers' in the business, despite having being 'banged up' for much of his adult life. But although Ray considers himself a superior type of criminal, there is no doubt that Bennett's message here is that, in the long term, crime doesn't pay. He writes about the soul-numbing experience of doing 'bird', and the lack of honour amongst thieves - a point demonstrated when Barry conceals some loot from his brother on one of their 'missions'.

Drummers also shows how crime creates schisms within the family - Ray develops a hatred for his moralising mother Ella (Maggie McCarthy), while Pete has an uneasy relationship with his overbearing father George (Ewan Hooper), seeking solace in regular shots of heroin.

Director Max Stafford-Clark has brought some remarkable performances out of his cast - Paul Ritter's Pete and Callum Dixon's Barry being so believably thuggish, you're almost shocked to discover in the programme notes that they've previously notched up performances of Shakespeare. Nathalie Gibbs' design utilises folding perspex panels, decorated with images of a sitting room and seedy pool hall.

Drummers is another success from Out of Joint, a company with a fine tradition of producing new writing. Bennett has brought us a fresh, carefully-crafted piece of drama, which is touching, humorous and sometimes powerful. He is a gifted young writer, and I look forward to seeing more work by him.

Richard Forrest

Note: The following review dates from Drummers' run at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

There are plenty of plays - probably too many - on this year s Fringe about the dark underbelly of the society we live in, a place where the rules do not apply, and where drugs, sex, brute force and thick wads of cash are the only currency; and they divide fairly sharply into two groups. There are the plays that make some attempt to understand how that brutal world relates to the physically comfortable and sheltered life of the great western middle-class majority. And there are the plays that simply stare in fascination at the moral wasteland they depict, seeming to condemn it, but in fact so deeply complicit with the idea that this brutal universe is exciting, intriguing and cool that their appeal to middle-class theatre audiences is mainly voyeuristic, not to say reactionary.

The problem with Simon Bennett s Drummers - a play about two interlocking south London criminal families, from Max Stafford-Clark s brilliant Out of Joint company - is that despite the terrific sharpness with which Bennett draws his characters (he has been in prison himself, and literally knows this world inside-out), it finally drifts too close to the second approach. It goes without saying that Stafford-Clark s production and script-editing is superb, elegant, pacey and deeply intelligent; and the show contains two electrifying performances from Peter Sullivan as a thoughtful psychopath called Ray - just out of prison and returning to his trade as a major-league housebreaker - and Maggie McCarthy as his angry, brilliantly observed mother.

But in the end, even the fierce, foul-mouthed energy of Bennett s hard estuary street-language cannot save this play from the routine temptations that come with the territory. What it has to tell us - in a dramatic style all too familiar from a thousand cop shows - is that some men are so twisted that they would rape their little brothers rather than accept minor humiliation. That s not a play, but a remark; not a conclusion, but only a beginning.

Joyce McMillan