Jim Cartwright’s new play aims, presumably, to be short and shocking and to smell of rank, fetid truth, so I hope it’s not too disrespectful to say that it strikes me as a fraud. An encounter between two London lowlifers, the play is the latest in an outpouring of nihilistic new British writing that shows no signs of letting up. But unlike “Shopping and Fucking” — the Royal Court’s other aggressively titled play of the season — “I Licked a Slag’s Deodorant” reveals less about present-day English blight and more about an author’s posturing: Actors in search of new audition monologues will love it; others may feel had.
“Slag” is British for slut or whore, while a “slag heap” refers to a mound of discarded coal, or refuse in general, and all these meanings come into play here. Cartwright’s Slag (Polly Hemingway) is a crack-addicted prostitute from the north of England whose London existence has consigned her to the grimmest of heaps — to a life “piled like slung clothes” and a language that pours torrentially, angrily forth. While she spends her time negotiating unsafe sex with a client, Man (Tim Potter) drinks, eats fish fingers and ends up living under her bed, surrounded by fluff balls and used condoms. He’s Dostoevsky’s Underground Man turned Kafkaesque beetle: Not for nothing does a “silver cockroach” feature in his opening speech.
The play offers up numerous such connections — Beckett comes to mind, as well — few of which feel earned, and one searches in vain for the raw, streetwise energy that made Cartwright’s 1986 Royal Court “Road” both painful and essential. (His plays since include the London hit, and Broadway flop, “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.”) While the writing is graphic to the end — “Strip the walls with your teeth,” says Slag. “We’ll plaster them with semen, I’ll speckle them with blood” — it’s also too stagy by half. So is a staging from the author situated on William Dudley’s bleak, curved set amid some unnamable slime, with puddles of water through which the characters slop.
The performers do what they can to humanize characters written as conceits, and Hemingway’s Slag has an unnerving intensity that grips the audience as much as it does Potter’s besieged rag doll of a Man. Still, when he concludes the play with the remark “I hear it all,” one wonders if he does. Or is it that Cartwright is so intent on impressing us with “honesty” that any real pain — any real life — has been buried alongside the fluff?