On the Fringe

Inner City Jam The Cockpit n The Ignoramus and the Maniac The White Bear n Anniversary Sweet The Finborough
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INNER CITY Jam starts with a spine-jolting smash of corrugated iron. This is the wake-up call to a musical jumping and humping with vitality, which plunges the audience into a King's Cross estate and takes it through the stories of drug addicts, prostitutes, under-age mothers and lunatics. No one falls in love, no one realises their dream, and there are no infuriating, all-redeeming messages. In short, this is not a musical with saccharine in its soul.

Although the production renounces glitter, it has several stars in its cast. Danny Edwards sings more naturally than he breathes, and lilts round the stage squeezing stylish camp out of every cell in his body. As a sex- video producer, singing, "It's not hard at all, just get a hard-on and keep it hard", he is accompanied by the elastic dancing skills of Paul Sharma, who turns the movement of limbs into a seamless magic.

Juliet Roberts, playing the maternal Joy, has worked with Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder, and in her theatrical debut charges her songs with such energy that she gets repeated standing ovations. As the only religious voice in a musical powered by lines such as: "What are summer nights made of? Too much heat, and shit on the street", and "What's pink and hard? A pig with a flick-knife", she does well to stand out in a show characterised by secular sardonicisms, grit, and hard-core delivery.

The largely black, working-class audience, cheering at every anti-establishment gesture, would probably have less time for The Ignoramus and the Maniac, and its middle-class preoccupations with opera, fine wines, and the relationship between a gifted daughter and her over-ambitious father.

This would be until it noticed the subversive, fascinating dissection of how humans try to control the world through their obsessions: a doctor reduces all human beings to a series of anatomical lists; an alcoholic father is emotionally dependent on his daughter's career as an opera- singer; and she lives to crack the suffocating shell created half by her father, half by her talent.

The Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard (who died in 1989), has created a surreal dialogue in which the three main characters' individual obsessions mean that they cannot talk properly to each other. Like parallel lines, their ideas about opera-singing run together smoothly side by side, but never meet. Dale Rapley, as the doctor, talks in arrogantly comic streams of anatomical jargon - such as: "A lobulated liver has scar-like crevasses, my friend." His delivery is so sharp, he could make a telephone directory sound like an interesting philosophy, while Lucy Stevens, debating the emotional quandary of how to escape the role of perfect performer, reveals a powerful voice and a poised delivery that underpin Matthias Janser's stylish, self-possessed production.

The on-stage mirror encapsulates the conflict between objective perception and emotional identity in the opera-singer's voice, but no such symbolism could be inferred from the set of Anniversary Sweet, which simply mirrors the existence of twentysomethings - a twilight zone between college and civilisation. Andrew Muir's first play deals with a man who takes revenge on flatmates after they force him out for motives based on drugs, sex, and ambition.

The production starts off patchy, but the dialogue is funky and fun, and the denouement surprisingly powerful. Carolla Stewart, all Chanel and enhanced teeth, is a great upper-class mother. But the real star is Andrew Muir, whose sense of structure and conversation make him a writer to watch.

`Inner City Jam' (0171-402 5081) to 7 May; `The Ignoramus and the Maniac' to 25 Apr (0171-793 9193); `Anniversary Sweet', to 8 May (0171-373 3842)