Review: Le Grand Mort (Trafalgar Studios)

Julian Clary stars in Stephen Clark’s new play about a meeting between two men

On a slick, dark kitchen set – black Smeg fridge and stainless steel surfaces – a man cooks dinner while telling stories of incest. Sex and death have been linked as far back as Aristotle, who believed making the beast with two backs shortened one's lifespan. Here, in this new play by the late playwright and lyricist Stephen Clark, we return to that idea. The only problem is, it's all sex and death and very little else.

The two-hander was written by Clark for comedian and actor Julian Clary who is clearly the best person in the world to be given free rein on the many dirty puns and double entendres which litter the play. But apart from a few of his legendary lifted eyebrows at the start, it all gets very earnest. There are bursts of comedy which land, but not many.

Through flashbacks, we learn Clary's Michael is cooking for a young man who approached him in the pub and is playing some pretty mucked-up mind games. The two swap stories about their broken lives – Michael's abuse at the hands of his mother, Tim's tragic story of young love taken too soon. But who are they really and who is taking who for a ride? The dialogue ping pongs back and forth across the pasta, knives are drawn, murder is mentioned.

Moments of Le Grand Mort are fired up and tense and the occasional reference to the weird sex myths of historical figures are fascinating. Rasputin's penis seems to come up a lot, as does Catherine the Great's apparently very close relationship with her horse. But overall, it's a baggy script, labouring over its points at the beginning during an unnecessary rhymed section, and never managing to develop them. We know sex and death are connected and are two of the most primeval aspects of human beings. And? There's a sense of forced poetry throughout – the feeling that everything is being said because it sounds clever.

The two performers work well together, but Clary never quite manages to embody the awkward, unhappy Michael. You don't believe he'd invite a stranger round for dinner, you also don't believe he's capable of murder. The threat just isn't there. James Nelson-Joyce gives a more convincing turn as the young, buff enigma – who has to strip down entirely for a large portion of the piece. He's intense and unstable and manages the swings in mood well.

Christopher Renshaw's production plods where it should hit a much better pace but really it's the fault of the piece itself. There's something of Pinter, something of Orton about Le Grand Mort but it relies on being oblique in all the wrong places. As a result, it feels as though it's a psychological thriller wrapped up in a guy-meets-guy tale. Or the other way round. Either way Le Grand Mort leaves you mightily unsatisfied.

Le Grand Mort runs at Trafalgar Studios until 28 October.