The Fastest Clock in the Universe

“Youth’s a stuff will not endure”, sings Feste in Twelfth Night, and Cougar in Philip Ridley’s second major play – revived as part of Hampstead’s 50th anniversary season – insists on no more than 19 birthday candles on his cake, though he’s pushing 30.

In the 1992 Hampstead premiere, Con O’Neill played Cougar Glass, the lounging sybarite, and a young unknown, Jude Law, his teenaged object of affection, Foxtrot Darling. Edward Dick’s superb revival has Alec Newman and Neet Mohan in the roles, and both make much more of the sad desperation in the friendship, less of the two-way narcissism.

Cougar is attended by his senior partner Captain Tock, a lovely study in fussy devotion and depleted aspiration by Finbar Lynch, and their decrepit landlady, Cheetah Bee (Eileen Page; fix the wig or ditch it, love), is on hand to reawaken the building’s origins as a furrier’s downstairs.

The East End hideaway is a gloomy Gothic mausoleum of stuffed birds and framed drawings, battered furniture, peeling walls and porn magazines, in Mark Thompson’s design, lit in bilious green beams and shadows by Rick Fisher. Ridley’s world may owe much to Pinter and Joe Orton in its atmosphere of menace and possession, but his detail is all his own, and these characters are both vividly imagined and perennial.

Cougar’s party guest is a pick-up from the local hospital, where the school-uniformed Foxtrot has been visiting his dying brother. Cougar has invented a dying wife to gain entrance. And now the dead brother’s girlfriend, Sherbet Gravel, has tracked Foxtrot to the party to make her own claims on him. It’s a tug of love with very nasty consequences.

Much depends on Sherbet’s impact as a catalytic infiltrator, and Jaime Winston, making her stage debut, is astoundingly good, as naturally and commandingly at home on a stage as any newcomer I’ve seen this year. Sherbet’s mantra is traditional values, traditional domesticity, and with a baby on the way, she’s targeting Foxtrot with comic insensitivity.

Dressed like a demented show poodle, her hair bunched into two blonde posies and her lower carriage heaving at the constraints of her mini-skirt, she cuts a hilarious figure of screeching domination in a play, rich in great speeches, that is both compelling and genuinely disturbing; there’s one scene near the end you won’t want to see again, but I won’t spoil it for you.