Arts: Go on, live dangerously...

INEVITABLY, LOOKING back, there are regrets. Shows I wish I'd seen. Shows I would gladly have triggered a security alert to extricate myself from (oh, for a mobile phone during Eyam, the Bridewell musical set during the Plague). There were more misses than hits - even though the selection of productions covered was weighted in favour of the most promising. Hardly surprising, you might think: if the term "fringe theatre" signifies anything, it is a peripheral space where artists have the prerogative to fail as well as the opportunity to prove themselves. Judging by what was on offer this 12-month, though, much of the failure stems from over- cautiousness. The spirit of risk-taking and innovation is scarcely to be seen.

If you wanted memorable new plays in '98, you could look further afield than the Bush or the Royal Court, but you had to keep your eyes peeled. Katie Hims's The Breakfast Soldiers made a good early impression at the rejuvenated Finborough. This sprightly comedy captured, with a mischievous hint of pastiche, the daffy awkwardness of two upright and uptight sisters sharing a house in the wake of the First World War, a co-dependence poignantly soured by the passage of time. Rosalind Philips' and Verity Hewlett's performances, minutely relaying the neuroses caused by unacted-upon desire, remain, for me, the year's most welcome surprises.

David Lewis' first full-length work, Sperm Wars - a frequently hilarious, though overly farcical, eavesdrop on the mutual recriminations of a childless couple - gave the Orange Tree's excellent new ensemble something to get their teeth into apart from solid revivals. Nick Green's Her Alabaster Skin, first seen at the grossly underrated White Bear in Kennington, boasted some startlingly idiosyncratic brutality inflicted on a lone male: ostensibly an ornate gangster turn, the piece slid into a mordant vision of a society whose key players are pathologically incapable of tolerating the existence of stand-alone individuals.

There were other slices of life that left a powerful aftertaste. Stephen Clark's Take-Away - presented by Mu-Lan at the Lyric Studio, Hammersmith - was a touching portrait of a family-run Chinese take-away facing an uncertain future. Jack Shepherd's Half Moon, presented at the Southwark Playhouse, was a gripping fly-on-the-wall study of raddled, bickering bohemians in a Fitzrovian watering hole during the Falklands War. Both combined a vibrant authenticity with an elegiac sense of eras at an end. Both reaffirmed the value of intimate theatre spaces; neither could be said to point the way forward, though.

To see moulds being broken and recast, the place to go was the BAC, that, after four years under the aegis of Tom Morris, has become something of a phenomenon. Readers may scratch their heads in wonder at the frequency with which the acronym of the Battersea Arts Centre appears but with 300 companies passing through this former town hall in 1998, the building now fully deserves its tag as "the national theatre of the fringe". By simply not charging rental, the BAC has opened the doors to a whole generation of performers and there's been a stampede of talent.

In the recent past, it has provided a launch-pad for the now universally championed Improbable Theatre and The Right Size, both of which vaulted into the mainstream with the deliciously nasty Shockheaded Peter and the buoyant Mr Puntila and His Man Matti. This year, there was some typically astute programming, which brought established artists back into the fold, and highlighted the strengths of unknowns. The In the Dark season this summer - which forced the audience to supply the visuals with their imagination - may have been partly borne out of a need to keep the costs of this underfunded centre down, but the likes of Theatre de Complicite and Improbable leapt at the opportunity to get involved. The season was so popular with performers and punters, it returns next year.

The even greater success of the BAC's contribution to The British Festival of Visual Theatre in October - 70 per cent of seats sold for the 100-odd performances, most of which flitted by too fast to get critical coverage - suggests that once a venue has secured the public's trust, a micro-climate of innovation develops.

Two undoubted highlights were Michael Wynne's Sell Out, a bruisingly accurate description of the fickle loyalties of twentysomethings performed by the tirelessly physical Frantic Assembly, and Tunnel Vision, a tragicomic puppet-show from Faulty Optic that portrays the whole world as a cross between a concentration camp and a theme park with hi-tech and lo-tech wizardry.

By this time next year, you'll probably be sick of hearing about these two companies. The risky ventures of 1998 become the safe bets of 1999, while the plodding revivals and wannabe West End musicals are simply forgotten. A critic can take very little credit for this process, beyond helping to point the public in the right direction. If you haven't yet done so, make it your resolution to beat a path to Battersea.


`Take-Away' tours to Liverpool, Brighton and Manchester in April 1999; `Sell Out' is touring the UK to April (booking: 01792 774888); `Sperm Wars' is at the Orange Tree, Richmond (0181-940 3633), 1-13 February; `Tunnel Vision', ICA, London (0171-930 3647), 11-13 January

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