The Fringe: Ripped and gripped

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RIPPED, shredded, cut to pieces. It's not some medieval torture, but the pumped-up state aimed at by bodybuilder Mel in Karen Hope's new play Ripped (Cockpit). Gripping as tightly as a power-lifter's belt, it confirms Hope's promise as an unusual, exciting writer.

Mel muscled into the muscle game when the swimming career forced on her by her dad took a dive after a teenage Olympic win. Now she craves an oxygenated high. The nearest Laura McTaggert comes to a high is a bar of Fruit and Nut; but then she's a pubescent maths prodigy without social skills, hot-housed to genius level by her zealot father. When the music of Mel's posing routine brings her down to the gym, Laura finds a research subject and friend in the imposing Mel.

Thus begins an exploration of the dangers of obsessive commitment. Laura bridles against her father's Calvinist ethos, while Mel's ambition leads to steroids despite warnings from her black partner James. But then James can't say he loves her other than by enthusing over her lats, traps and delts.

Hope's depiction of the rarefied worlds of infant prodigy and musclehead is enthralling, her dialogue relaxed and funny, and she's beautifully served by Jessica Dromgoole's production. Victoria Harwood's feisty, bikini-clad beefcake Mel (her lats and traps attesting to an immersion in her role that would shame De Niro) and newcomer Lindsey Wilson's tentative Laura are a perfectly matched odd couple. Sidney Cole's James is all expansive, blokey charm until riled, and David Sibley beefs up the underdeveloped, repressed father. In theatre, as in bodybuilding, definition and development are vital: Ripped has both.

Trevor Baxter's Through a Glass, Darkly (Warehouse, Croydon) is about a dysfunctional marriage. Dipsomaniac and amateur philosopher Donald and fading clairvoyant Estelle only seek help once. Donald rapes and impregnates his wife, but their counsellor quickly becomes just another weapon on the marital battlefield.

This is very odd. The humdrum bickering is well-observed, but weird epiphanies hijack it; the middle of the play descends into psychobabble and plot-explanation; and Estelle's oblique soliloquies (top-lit and unwieldy in Ted Craig's able production) presage a bizarre denouement. It's hard to see what Johnson's getting at.

Carmen Gomez and Thomas Wheatley grapple well with the words, but their relationship, and with it the play's polarisation of soul and mind, never quite convince.

The key seems to be the oft-repeated epigram for Donald's philosophical tract: 'In the hurt of being human lies the power of love.' Yes, but what does it mean? As its title suggests, the play is, in the end, murkily unsatisfying.

Finally, David Graham-Young's intelligent production of Bulgakov's Flight (Lyric Studio, Hammersmith) - a portrait of White Russians in extremis as they flee the Bolsheviks in 1920-1921 - is rather bloodless. Some of the writer's eight 'dreams' here seem under-rehearsed, under- acted or just under-translated. Without the superb performance of Peter Tate as the haunted General Khludov, a Crimean Kurtz going insane in the face of insanity, Flight would be almost earthbound.

'Ripped' to 30 Oct (071-402 5081); 'Through a Glass, Darkly' to 14 Nov (081-680 4060); 'Flight' to 6 Nov (081- 741 8701)