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Flesh Wound

"I've been calumniated," says Vincent, one of a trio of toughs who seem to be on the run from everything except language itself. Dramatist Che Walker invests those barely existing at life's margins with a redemptive way with words. However much guns overtake the landscape, the capacity for gab remains.

Deirdra - Tamzin Outhwaite Joseph - Michael Attwell Vincent - Andrew Tiernan

“I’ve been calumniated,” says Vincent (Andrew Tiernan), one of a trio of North London toughs who would seem to be on the run from everything except language itself. Dramatist Che Walker knows his terrain, which in the case of “Flesh Wound” doesn’t merely mean the shadier byways and more sinister council blocks of Camden. Following the lead of Joe Orton, Martin McDonagh and even Jez Butterworth at his more baroque, Walker invests those barely existing at life’s margins with a redemptive way with words. However much guns overtake the landscape, the capacity for gab remains. Even the expletives — “cunt ox” — are a cut above the norm.

Whether that facility alone adds up to a satisfying play may depend on an individual’s ability to overlook what remains conventional at the core of a script whose reconciliations and recriminations tend to pile up by rote. But a London public probably will remain spellbound on the basis of the play’s distaff lead alone: There, nearly close enough to touch, is the queen of British TV drama at its most sexily feral, “EastEnders” star Tamzin Outhwaite, in her first British theater appearance in five years. (In her early days, she trawled the West End musicals circuit.)

Outhwaite plays Deirdra, the scrappy, fiercely spoken younger half-sister of the calumny-prone Vincent, who is scarred in ways that go beyond the blood visibly caked on his face. The last of the play’s trio to arrive (the third character is Vincent’s preening gangster-father, Joseph, played by Michael Attwell), Vincent is also the most immediately troubled. Barreling his way into Deirdra’s dingy flat, 20 floors above the mob vengeance of sorts simmering at street level down below, Vincent has fallen foul of a murderous local gang, the Calderozzos, whose feeble-minded daughter, Rosie, he apparently got pregnant. “I got demons,” Vincent says. That ain’t the half of it.

One can see this play’s attraction for director Wilson Milam, the expatriate American who last year was responsible for McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” which remains the template by which — for a while, anyway — blood-drenched black comedy will be judged. “Flesh Wound” isn’t faintly in the same league as “Lieutenant.” Nor does Milam walk the tightrope of writing whose bursts of humor should only accentuate the growing horror of a household where all the men are damaged in the head (explicitly so, given the motif in the script of a “ridge” on the skull).

But the play generates the tension that goes with a milieu where expressions of affection exist cheek-by-jowl with violence. The errant father Joseph has been “storing a cuddle” for his son for 30 years, but that doesn’t prevent him acting impulsively in a way that made many in the first-night audience wince. (At another point, a flying knife landed a few feet from the critics: That’s one way to preempt discussion.)

Dick Bird’s set may be even drearier than necessary: After all, isn’t Deirdra attempting to separate herself, not least environmentally, from the psychoses that are proliferating around her? (A teary unseen mother, for instance, seems to do nothing but get thrown out of the London chain of pharmacies, Boots.) But set decoration isn’t the issue here; familial conflagration is, even if a child-related coo-fest toward the end at least temporarily gives the impression that the cycle of blight may have been arrested.

The roles must be energizing if also draining to play, and sufficient opening-night fluffs were evident to suggest the performances will get more confident yet. An alum of last fall’s “The Woman Who Cooked Her Husband,” Attwell storms his way breezily through the role of Joseph, the survivor of a stabbing who, one feels, might well decide to cook one relative or another if, as he puts it, “There is nothing better on the box.” Handed the most declarative of Walker’s sentences (“I’m a curse”), Tiernan leads us inexorably along a doom-laden path that could be subtitled “Three Lowlifes and a Little Baby.” Outhwaite, eyes glistening, throws around words like “fantasist” but plays Deirdra as if she understands her to the very flesh: a woman guarding terrain that by play’s end will be gone.

Flesh Wound

Royal Court Jerwood Theater Upstairs -- London; 89 seats; 15 pounds ($24.60) top

Production: A Royal Court Theater presentation of a play in one act by Che Walker. Directed by Wilson Milam.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Dick Bird; lighting, Neil Austin; sound, Ian Dickinson. Opened, reviewed May 21, 2003. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.

Cast: Deirdra - Tamzin Outhwaite Joseph - Michael Attwell Vincent - Andrew Tiernan

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