Quentin Tarantino has a lot to answer for if “Gangster No. 1” is to be taken seriously. Less an exploration of the life of a fictional London hood than a crude gallop through it, this first play by Louis Mellis and David Scinto may hope to inflame the debate about the limits of stage and screen violence, but in truth it should be so lucky. Sufficiently mannered is the writing — and so limited are the writers’ points of reference — that the evening leaves you feeling anesthetized rather than angered or disturbed.
The Royal Court had a summer hit with Jez Butterworth’s Tarantino-drenched “Mojo,” and “Gangster No. 1” is presumably gunning to draw that same audience to the Almeida that wouldn’t otherwise go near this theater’s fascinating dips into the European repertoire (Anouilh, Pirandello, O’Casey).
The difference is that whereas Butterworth applies a fresh linguistic spin to his Soho thugs, “Gangster No. 1” feels borrowed throughout. You’ll hear echoes of “True Romance” and its numerous progeny alongside an earlier film like Peter Medak’s “The Krays,” with bits of “Macbeth” thrown in for a touch of class.
The play charts almost 30 years in the life of its titular Kray-style Gangster (Peter Bowles), a shark in a three-piece suit with a down-turned mouth and a sour sneer. For much of act one, he sits stage left, cursing and snarling and recalling the parade of “genuine rotters” he has known.
The remaining characters are perched at various points along Giles Cadle’s rather oppressively slanted and fussy set: the Gangster’s nemesis, Freddie Mays (Richard Johnson), the so-called “butcher of Mayfair,” who gets 22 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit; the doomed Eddie Miller (John Cater), whose neckless slouch in the opening scene more or less portends his fate; and the policeman Sid (Kenneth Colley), whose program billing as Bent Copper turns out to be less facetious than it first appears. This isn’t a world in which women figure large, but there is one for good measure — Freddie’s girl, Mel (Sharon Duce), who stops some way short of being a moll.
The first act takes place in 1968, while the second whizzes us up to the present, with the Gangster giving us a cheerfully amoral year-by-year chronology — “1976: caught up with Maxie, tortured him, threw him out the window” — to speed us to the present. What we’re supposed to make of the Gangster is anybody’s guess. One minute, he’s cataloguing past uses of an ax, chisel and pencil(!)with a relish to make Titus Andronicus squirm; the next, he’s reeling from a faux-Shakespearean mad scene (“gargoyles in my brain,” as he puts it) and , later, begging the audience for sympathy: What he wants, he says, is a Valentine’s Day card.
There’s not a lot to be done with such material, much of it monologue-driven, beyond treating it as a series of turns, and Jonathan Kent’s direction does exactly that while never quite concealing the writing’s air of fakery. In an impressive about-face from his normal cabinet minister persona, Bowles brings a sardonic ruthlessness to a man who never stops at pouring himself a whiskey when he can proceed to concuss someone with the bottle.
Stripped to his underwear in act two as he battles a night marish parade of victims, the actor retains his dignity long after the character has lost his. “Outside now, the lot of you; you’re all mad,” he cries in a Piran-dellian burst from nowhere, and it’s to Bowles’ credit that we don’t immediately take the Gangster at his word and bolt for the door.