THE FRINGE / A heaven in hell's despite

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The Independent Culture
It's almost misleading to say that ATC's The Maids is camp, because most of our exposure to camp comes through television, where camp is a comforting, silly quality with very little irony attached. There's nothing remotely cosy about Richard Sandells and Peter Bailie playing Claire and Solange, the embittered servants who simultaneously worship and hate their lofty, beautiful mistress, 'Our Lady'. Still, Sandells especially, in early David Bowie make-up, gives a virtuoso exhibition of screaming camp: very funny, but also gratifyingly savage. How far Jean Genet's allegorical intentions survive in Nick Philippou's production is open to question. But Lez Brotherston's design, steel and red velvet, catches the mood of thwarted sensuousness neatly, and on its own it's worth seeing.

Unfortunately, it is half of an overlong double-bill. The second play, Sartre's No Way Out, seems buttoned down and pallid by comparison. This is the one where three people find themselves in Hell, and realise that their punishment is simply to be together - 'Hell is other people'. It would take a stronger production than this to convince me that this play is anything more than a 10-minute sketch stretched way beyond its limits.

Similarly, Claire Dowie's Leaking from Every Orifice is a very funny 30- minute autobiographical monologue about lesbianism and childbirth, regrettably swollen to 90 minutes and letting the stretch-marks show. There are some brilliant one- liners here - I was taken with the idea that men aren't naturally attracted to women, and advertising is designed to encourage propagation of the species: when a Cadbury's Flake is shown being gobbled by an attractive woman, say, it's the woman who's being advertised, since men already like Flakes. With some tough editing, this could be a stunningly good show; but right now, it flirts a little too seriously with tedium.

From this to The Case of Rebellious Susan is a hefty step. The Orange Tree has made a speciality of exhuming forgotten English plays; and with Henry Arthur Jones's 1894 comedy, the policy has paid off handsomely. Sarah-Jane Fenton is the high-minded Lady Susan Harabin, whose reaction to her husband's adultery, running away to Egypt in search of her own romantic adventure, shocks her friends.

The play is partly an attack on the double standards that then allowed men to be unfaithful but not women; but it also pokes fun at the women who found their marriages on unrealistic ideals. The complexity of the moral is conveyed through, again, some brilliant one-liners; but also through a tight structure, with contrasting romances and comic sub-plot. The disparate elements are glued together by Malcolm Sinclair's marvellously reasonable Sir Richard Kato, in whose person all the plots and all the messages converge; so that the whole is rather more than the sum of its parts.

'The Maids' and 'No Way Out' continue to Saturday at the Drill Hall, London WC1 (071-637 8270). 'Leaking from Every Orifice', BAC, SW11 (071-223 2223). 'The Case of Rebellious Susan', Orange Tree, Richmond, Middx (081-940 3633)