‘La petit mort’ is a phrase originating from the sixteenth century. Its literal translation is ‘the little death’, but it is more commonly used to describe the sensation of orgasm and liken it to dying. So, what does that make Le Grand Mort? A two-hander, Michael (Julian Clary) and Tim (James Nelson-Joyce) meet in a pub. After inviting Tim over for dinner, the two men exchange facts and fictions, grow intimate and apart, terrify and tease one another, all in quick-witted dialogue packed with slick remarks and double entendre. Le Grand Mort explores a smorgasbord of erotic and frightening themes like love, lust, desire, incest, and the sordid relationship between sex and death.

Clary undoubtedly steals the show. As he chops and dices vegetables with a glinting knife in his trendy gunmetal Notting Hill kitchen (designed by Justin Nardella), he regales us with urban legends and popular myths of beautiful people who died young. His morbid fascination with the body after death takes a sexual tone, as he addresses us and speaks lyrically. Clary’s exceptional comedic timing lends itself perfectly to the verse-like flow of Stephen Clarke’s writing and gives Michael a hypnotising quality. His nuanced humour, innuendos and knowing jibes are thoroughly entertaining.

Nelson-Joyce is less enjoyable to watch than Clary, and the chemistry between the two feels slightly off-kilter, a tad unbelievable even. To put it simply, they make a very odd pairing. Like oil and milk, they just don’t mix, and their back-and-forth flirtations feel forced and meticulously rehearsed rather than responsive or natural. However, Nelson-Joyce is captivating during his monologue towards the end of the piece, during which the tensions of the evening boil over and take a sinister turn. He is rather good at being the intense, maniacal, pathological liar Tim, but less so at the loving, interested, calm Tim.

Directed by Christopher Renshaw, Le Grand Mort crams a lot into its 90-minute running time and even more into the small space of Trafalgar Studios 2. Renshaw’s script, in its lighter moments, is genuinely funny and clever, with some smart and thought-provoking observations about the way in which we regard life, death and sex. But it comes with a heavy and largely unexplained intensity that is almost too much to bear and which I couldn’t seem to find the root of, or a reason for. The piling on of distressing ideas combined with the stale pairing of Clary and Nelson-Joyce creates a near miss of a play. However, see it anyway for its abundance of sex, danger and Clary’s flair for the funny.

Le Grand Mort is playing at Trafalgar Studios 2 until October 28.

Photo: Scott Rylander