THE FRINGE / A spoonful of sugar

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The Independent Culture
Charm is an underrated quality: a play can have courage, originality, imagination, all that stuff, but still fall flat without it. Conversely, given enough, the soggy and the cliched can still get by. Accustomed to Her Face, at the Drill Hall, slides neatly into the second category.

To begin with, John Binnie's play comes on tough: when American lesbian feminist vegetarian Erin arrives in Scotland to search for her roots, she's subjected to ritual degradation and displays of aggression by her unwilling hosts, Basher and Maxy. And after that, we're subjected to a similar display of in- your-face social concern - this is a tale of the grindingly insular life of the underclass in a small town, where Basher and Maxy have nothing to do most evenings but get drunk and reminisce about the boys they've both laid.

But as Erin wins the girls over, and seduces Basher, all the bitterness gets drowned out by sugar. Binnie wants to have it both ways, showing us how these women's lives have been stunted by poverty, while also making it clear that they can feel more richly and deeply than the deracinated, middle- class Erin ever can.

In the end, you feel there's little substance, and the final note of uplift rings false. What makes the evening pleasurable is the charm of the performers, particularly Mari Binnie's roistering, up-yours Basher. They can't make the play any more plausible, but they do make it a good deal more than bearable.

Plausibility isn't really the issue in The Promise, at the Room. This is a self-consciously magical realist story about witchcraft and love that reaches beyond the grave. Again, it's set among the underclass, in this case the Puerto Rican community on Long Island, New York; but Jose Rivera's script is quite clear-sighted about the cruelty, greed and misplaced nostalgia that can come with poverty.

The plot is pure schlock: Guzman (an impressively bull-dog-like Vincenzo Nicoli), 'the Idi Amin of Long Island', wants his daughter Lilia (Kate Wilton) to marry a rich man. She is in love with Carmelo, however, and besides, they were promised to each other before they were born. Guzman kills Carmelo, with the aid of a magic chicken, and Lilia despairingly agrees to marry the wealthy but depraved Hiberto; the ceremony is disrupted, however, by Carmelo's ghost.

What's impressive is that the play is so ruthlessly sentimental, virtually challenging you to laugh at it. Against the odds, it works superbly, the disparate elements of Dominic Hill's production - the cotton-wool clouds and tinfoil stars of Cristina Casali's set, the cartoon-like over-acting of the cast - combining to undermine the play's fantastic aspects and so, improbably, add to its emotional conviction. It's also, incidentally, charming as hell; but really, it doesn't need to be.

'Accustomed to Her Face', Drill Hall, London WC1 (071-637 8270); 'The Promise', The Room, Orange Tree Pub, Richmond (081-940 3633).

(Photograph omitted)