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Culkin steals the show as Lonergan's lost youth returns

Review by Jack Foley

IN WHAT is proving to be quite a showcase for the hottest young American talent emerging from Hollywood, Kenneth Lonergan's acclaimed This Is Our Youth has been revived at The Garrick Theatre with another blistering cast.

When it opened in March 2002, Lonergan's darkly comic coming-of-age tale provided theatre audiences with the chance to steal a glimpse of a pre-Star Wars: Episode Two Hayden Christensen, along with X-Men star, Anna Paquin, and the hitherto unknown, Jake Gyllenhaal.

Gyllenhaal went on to steal the show and has rightly been nominated in the Outstanding Newcomer category of the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, while also winning over cinema audiences for his performance in Donnie Darko.

The trio of Matt Damon, Summer Phoenix and Casey Affleck followed, before the show closed for a short time, to the disappointment of West End audiences.

Now, however, it has been revived with Colin Hanks (son of Tom), Kieran Culkin (brother of Macaulay) and Alison Lohman - and it is pleasing to be able to report that it has lost none of its biting wit, or emotional gravitas.

Set in uptown New York, at the dawn of the affluent 80s, the play concentrates on a trio of disaffected kids, who value sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll above all else. At the start of proceedings, we find Hanks' self-obsessed drug dealer, Dennis, reluctantly taking in Culkins' wimpy Warren, who has stolen $15,000 from his abusive father, and then hatching a plan for the ultimate party using some of the cash.

Enter Lohman's neurotic Jessica, who is left on her own with Warren and then embarks on a steamy night at the Plaza Hotel against her better judgement.

The second act of the evening deals with the repercussion of the night before, as Dennis attempts to patch things up with his girlfriend and make good on the 'loan' of the stolen cash, and Warren attempts to understand his place in the great scheme of things - both with an embarrassed Jessica and a 'freaked out' Dennis.

The ensuing production, played out within the grubby confines of Dennis's apartment, makes for compelling viewing, drawing on a lost culture and its struggle to survive against the drug-taking excesses of its day.

Hanks, bearing an uncanny resemblance to his father, and displaying a similar comic timing, is, possibly, the weaker of the trio, partly because his character is the least likeable and partly because his amiable appearance fails to convey the required look of a dominating bully. But when it counts, the young star delivers, and his gradual 'awakening' to the fact that drugs are bad, coupled with his realisation that he is a 'hero' to the guy he so often ridicules, makes for riveting viewing and suggests that the surname Hanks could well be around for at least another generation.

Stronger still are both Lohman and Culkin, whose scenes together - packed with awkward silences and misunderstood advances - provide the highlight of the evening. Lohman, who will soon be seen on the big screen alongside Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander, before moving on to Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men (with Nic Cage), perfectly conveys the uptight insecurities of her appearance-obsessed character, and the mixed up feelings of the morning after.

But it is Culkin, sliding easily into the Gyllenhaal role of Warren, who really steals the show. Less showy and a little quieter than his highly-praised predecessor, Culkin's remains a mesmerising performance, effortlessly conveying the frustrated and trampled upon emotions of his character - a self-confessed loner, still trying to come to terms with the murder of his sister (10 years earlier), who quietly resents the abuse he is dealt, almost on a daily basis, from so-called friends.

Culkin could well be a Gyllenhaal for the very-near future (if the advance word on his latest movie, Igby Goes Down, is to be believed), and he clearly seems to be having a ball with Warren, suggesting more with a wry smile, or a nod of the head, than a lot of actors can with far showier techniques. He plays well off Hanks and Lohman, is strong enough to control the audiences' attention when appearing alone and has the range both to engage both the funny bone and tug at our emotions at different points of proceedings.

Laurence Boswell's under-stated direction also allows his actors to really shine through, while Lonergan's spiky script, containing plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, gives them (and us) plenty to chew on. All in all, a terrifically entertaining evening, making a welcome return, which gives film buffs and theatre-goers the chance to see Hollywood's stars of tomorrow, up close and personal, within the confines of the West End stage. Don't miss it.

This is Our Youth, by Kenneth Lonergan. Directed by Laurence Boswell. WITH: Colin Hanks (Dennis), Kieran Culkin (Warren), Alison Lohman (Jessica). Garrick Theatre, 2 Charing Cross Road, WC2 Mondays to Saturdays at 7.30pm Thursday and Saturday matinees at 3pm. Tickets 0870 890 1104

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