By Tracy Letts
Strange and horrible things happen in fictional motels: Stabbings in showers in Psycho, paedophilia in Lolita, Thelma and Louise running from the law before a final cliff-hanger, a helpless female saved from mobsters by a Brit secret service agent in the novel The Spy Who Loved Me, drugs and murder in Touch of Evil.
To this litany of weirdness and characters, playwright Tracy Letts added Agnes and Peter in Bug. Pothead Agnes (Kate Fleetwood) is holed up in an Oaklahoma motel room with only a crack pipe for company, avoiding her ex-con ex-husband Jerry (Alec Newman).
That's save for the occasional visit of lesbian friend RC (Daisy Lewis). RC brings along gentle giant (shades of Steinbeck another motel afficianado) Peter (James Norton), seemingly a Gulf War veteran who introduces himself fetchingly saying, "I'm not an axe murderer", only that he "makes people nervous" because he "picks up on things".
He's certainly no Jack Torrance in The Shining , but gradually Peter starts to drop the odd line drawing Agnes, already susceptible to National Enquirer type stories, into a world view veering from the comically conspiratorial to the fatally self-destructive.
And those things he picks up on? They turn out to have a corporeal manifestation - a supposed insect infestation where the remedy proves worse than living with those pesky microscopic critters.
Bug, mixing Hitchcock with Kafka with Hollywood and comic book scifi horror, a hefty dollop of the X-Files and even a nightmare possibly from an Ian McEwan novel, premiered in London in 1996.
But this was also post Watergate and after the fall of the Berlin Wall and very real health fears for Gulf War veterans. And the year of a real Asian beetle infestation in New York plus journalists revealing the CIA promotion of crack cocaine importation to fund right-wing rebel groups in Nicaragua.
Yet in the end, the power of Bug the play lies not in state conspiracy, but how far over the edge the isolated and disappointed - and drug-addled - can be pushed and nudged into pushing themselves.
Still, lines thrown in at times - "Women aren't my bag" and "I'm playing devil's advocate" throw into question the delusion and self-knowledge of the couple. If - in a play written before mass internet usage - the media, literature, film, the news, even the psychology of acting and the creation of "character" are the instigators or results of tragedy.
With the audience as voyeurs on every side and looming plaster beams - there's a Psycho bathroom in one corner, the seedy motel room door and window at the other - it's an evening of proximities.
The changing light (lighting designer Richard Howell) outside is just discernible through the cheap curtains as Agnes crosses to the mini bar in the third corner wedged between members of the audience. Indeed viewed from above the bedroom set may even resemble a bug's compound eye.;)
There are subtle sound effects from Edward Lewis from the first chirping cricket (it's not a spoiler to say that this jiminy cricket gets the chop) to the real or imaginary helicopters circling overhead near the end.
The Charing Cross Road venue proves perfect for this visceral grunge production directed by Simon Evans (oh, did we mention James Norton was in it?:)), both as a former art school and as the dilapidated grafitti-strewn home of Found 111. Whether the play would have the same impact on a formal proscenium stage is debatable.
Kate Fleetwood's Agnes and James Norton's Peter crash and burn, gnawing into themselves, within touching distance and it's the physical nearness which resonates, Daisy Lewis's RC and Alec Newman's Jerry frame the action of the junkie couple with strong performances. While Carl Prekopp's role of Dr Sweet seems not so much underwritten as deliberately jarring.
With a nightmarish comic book quality, TLT and her own little bug(gy) laughed, cringed and gasped spontaneously in the right places. Be prepared for blood, gore, dentistry beyond Marathon Man, alongside extreme population pest control and you'll have an enjoyable shlock horror rollercoaster evening. A green light.