THEATRE has often lost writers to the TV fat cats of sitcom. Now, however, sitcom grandees Lawrence Marks and Maurice Gran are dipping their finger in the playhouse greasepaint after 25 years of canned laughter, Birds Of A Feather, The New Statesmen et al.

Sitcom's loss is theatre's loss too. Playing God is a "dull grey comedy about death and megalomania", to borrow Gran's own phrase, and he is only half right: this stifling drama with a cancerous sting in its tale is definitely dull and grey, but comedy, like Elvis, has left the building.

Four people you wouldn't invite are seated at dinner in a ritzy Regency house on the edge of Richmond Park, London's "rockbroker" belt. Retired rock star Ed Ryder (David Cardy), his food untouched, has just told the table he's got cancer. Wife Claudia (Clare Swinburne) is upset he didn't tell her first; best friend Clive (David Sibley) is upset for himself; Clive's tough-nut businesswoman wife, Henri (Becky Hindley), is always upset with life anyway.

To cheer the mood, Claudia produces her pudding flourish of Death By Chocolate, such an unfortunate choice all round. Gran and Marks's writing uses the same calorific recipe: their heavy dialogue clogs up the arteries, often leaving the cast short of breath in Laurie Sansom's production.

No one in real life would talk like these characters; no one on stage can speak these contrived lines with conviction. The comedy is as forced as foie gras: Claudia is an agoraphobic travel writer, who must write of abroad from home. Ho hum.

Cardy's Ed would never convince Simon Cowell he's got star running through his rock; Clive, head of religious programming at the Beeb, seems a most unlikely best friend; not even Swinburne and Sibley look as if they believe oily Clive would be having an affair with luscious Claudia.

"Well, apart from the cancer, everything is going gangbusters," says Ed at the close of the first half, in a misjudgement to rival Chamberlain waving his piece of paper.

Agoraphobic/trapped Claudia tries one last time to leave the house at the finale. Watching this dire play would be just the therapy to drive her through the door.

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Updated: 11:01 Wednesday, July 06, 2005