Fringe: Oh, it's such a perfect play

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The Independent Culture
Perfect Days

Traverse

Unleashed & Shylock

Assembly

Dumped

Pleasance

In a pristine Glasgow loft apartment, two women are discussing how to get pregnant. "Have you thought of artificial insemination?" one says. "Mibbe," her friend Barbs replies, "but I don't like to think of having to tell my baby its daddy is a wanker."

With , Liz Lochhead has created the voice of an Everywoman for the Nineties. Barbs (brilliantly played by the feisty Siobhan Redmond) has everything - her own hairdressing salon, minor celebrity status from her slot on daytime TV's Morningtime Makeover, an interior-designed flat, friends who adore and support her, and lovers who take her to Paris. Granted, her mother (Ann Scott-Jones, resplendent in turquoise leisure suit and bubble-gum pink housecoat) nags her and buys her hideously inappropriate acrylic jumpers for her birthday, but hers, on the whole, is an enviable lot. Except that she's 39 and she wants a baby.

It's now difficult to discuss this kind of thing without somewhere using the words "Bridget" and "Jones". But it would be doing Barbs and her creator an injustice to compare her to Helen Fielding's exasperatingly vacuous heroine. is a far more intelligent and far-reaching study into how it is possible to be surrounded by love and still be lonely. The action all takes place in Barbs's elegant but increasingly empty-feeling loft, and characters come and go while Barbs conducts her search for happiness, fulfilment and sperm. Lochhead's forte is comedy which can splinter into faultlines of sadness: as all around her achieve contentment - her ex-husband's new 22-year-old girlfriend gets pregnant, her gay best friend finds a lover, her sister-in-law traces her long lost son - it is Barbs's genuine pleasure for them that is so heartbreaking.

John Godber's new play, Unleashed, is also concerned with gender crisis - but this time in men. Four blokes are in Amsterdam for a conference: Dennis, the older man in a comfortable marriage; the cocky twentysomething Darren; Jeff, who has a disabled daughter and a slavish admiration for "senior management", represented by the suave, largely absent BJ. There are, of course, no prizes for guessing where they end up their night out.

Unleashed is both badly written and badly directed. The blocking is stilted and unimaginative - the four actors assume a spot for a scene and then barely move from it, as if they have adhesive on their shoe soles. Dennis (Dicken Ashworth) in particular appears to be unable to speak a line at a normal volume. The result is a situation in which three men are yelling to each other their innermost secrets about their predilections for phone- sex, supposedly in a crowded conference hall. Lines aren't given any space. As soon as one finishes shouting, another begins, not leaving enough oxygen between Godber's rather pedestrian revelations. Even worse, it gives the appearance that the characters aren't listening to each other. One minute, Dennis is denying having seen any pornography in his hotel room, and the next he is talking about the blue movies on the TV. And all the while, a woman in a basque and suspenders gyrates on a podium. The world is better off without this kind of stuff.

It is a relief then, that the NYT's production of the Belfast-set Dumped is skilled, pacy and invigoratingly vitriolic. Big Issue sellers Nick and Liz find Franco sleeping in "their" skip. Franco, a stand-up comedian, has been thrown out by his girlfriend Julie, and tries to enlist their help to win her back: "I've been dumped," he gestures at the skip. "It's a pun. A piss-poor one, but a pun altogether."

Kerry-Jayne Wilson (Liz) is a real find: she simmers with a foxy intelligence, swinging from fury to aggression to injured frustration in a second. Josh Cole as Franco has a febrile, laconic style, charting Franco's dangerous decline from heartbroken to psychotic in artful increments. Their scene together, where they are rehearsing arguments they plan to have with their respective partners, crackles with a difficult balance of humour and tension.

Which are only two of the many things achieved by Shylock. This dramatic monologue from Tubal, the only other Jew in The Merchant of Venice, addresses, among other things, the endlessly-asked question of whether Shakespeare was anti-semitic.

Gareth Armstrong's (better known as Sean from The Archers) Tubal is likeable, thoughtful, funny and all too aware of the size of his role: "Eight lines, one scene. But it's a great scene," he assures us, his beady brown eyes darting round the audience, "Tubal is crucial to the scene. And to Shylock. I'm his best friend." He pauses. "His only friend, actually."

Tubal gives us the full history of the play and, along the way, I learned some facts: that there were no Jews in England when Shakespeare wrote it, due to Edward I's purge in 1290; that it wasn't the Nazis who invented Jew badges - they were a 12th-century Europe-wide directive to prevent interbreeding; that in 1140, the city of York butchered its entire Jewish population; that there were many who thought Jews were vampires; that Hitler loved the play, but had the bit where Shylock's daughter marries a Gentile rewritten.

Armstrong is nothing short of incredible: he presents Shylock's bitterness as a product of persecution. It's hardly a radical interpretation, but it's conveyed here with such innovation, delight and energy. He's wasted on radio: he scuttles about the tiny stage with ease and fluidity, switching with a mimic's accuracy from Pontius Pilate to Richard Burbage to the Rev Bowdler to Oliver Cromwell. It is an exceptional piece of theatre. Everyone should see it.

Traverse (0131 228 1404); Assembly (0131 226 2428); Pleasance (0131 556 6550).

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