Leaders of the pack

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Ashes and Sand Royal Court, Theatre Upstairs Flora the Red Menace Orange Tree So you want to write a piece for stage about young people living through a depression and facing constant rejection. Do you a) write a searing, brutal piece about dead-end kidsor b) write a spirited, hopeful musical about plucky youngsters?

Ashes and Sand follows Plan A. Judy Upton's vicious little hand grenade of a play explodes onto the stage of the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs to take us into the bleak world of a violent girl gang living in a seaside resort. It's a timely piece, stagedjust as girl gangs are in the news - and quite shocking in its emptiness.

Ringleader Hayley and her three 15-year-old accomplices hang around arcades, rob off-licences and mug men. They dream about using their stolen cash to escape to Bali and fantasize about Daniel, a handsome young detective who has befriended them. Hayley in particular fixes on Daniel as a kindred spirit - someone who has guts and willpower (Daniel has plans to take a job in Gibraltar). But it is clear to us that Daniel is bogus: he is no more going to Gibraltar than the gang are going to Bali, and both hi s libido and his ability to relate to people are gradually ebbing away into his fetishism for stilettos.

Ian Rickson's vivid production belts through the rapid-fire scenes, framed by Jeremy Herbert's cold, chic set that uses mirrors cleverly to create an alienating world. Susan Lynch is riveting as Hayley: her pale face framed by a shock of Medusa-like bla c k locks, she combines demonic aggression with a pathetic, desperate craving for affection. And Nick Reding gives a fine, subtle performance as Daniel, a loner who is gradually slithering away from normality. There are times when Upton hammers her points home, but her writing blazes with anger about the waste of a generation with no hopes, for whom trust is meaningless, Flora the Red Menace (Orange Tree, Richmond) is also about a ringleader - again a girl who behaves badly - and a society where there is nothing much on offer. But there it parts company with Ashes and Sand. Set in 1935, during the American Depression, th is musical comedy by Kander and Ebb - better known for the darker and more sophisticated Cabaret, oozes charm and hope.

Flora, a plucky, impetuous type, is a would-be fashion illustrator who shares her studio with an assortment of other impoverished young hopefuls. Flora manages to land a job, but just as she does so, she falls in love with a guy in the Communist party. Soon she finds herself with an agonising moral choice - does she cross a picket line and save jobs, or stick to the party's principles and save her relationship?

It is a witty little musical, staged with refreshing simplicity by Sam Walters, performed with gusto and swept along by a compelling performance from Lucy Tregear as the highly spirited Flora. But it's fairly superficial and so, well, nice, that the Depression scarcely seems much trouble. Give me Plan A every time.

`Ashes and Sand', Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London, SW1 (071-730 2554); `Flora the Red Menace', Orange Tree, Richmond (081-940 3633)