THE FRINGE / Space, a new frontier: Sarah Hemming maps a changing landscape

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LAST week the London listings magazine Time Out changed its theatre section. Slipped in between the 'West End' and 'Fringe' entries, you will now find a new category: 'Off-West End'. A small point, but it's a significant alteration.

In the 25 years that Time Out has been listing plays, the so- called London 'Fringe' has expanded enormously and these days ranges from theatres that seat several hundred to the tiniest of upstairs rooms in pubs. The magazine's new categories are intended to differentiate between the extremes. The change is already being argued over on Time Out's letters page, but it highlights the size and complexity of what now constitutes the London 'Fringe'.

The landscape is ever-changing. This week two companies nibbled away further at the fringes of the Fringe by taking plays into unusual venues. The newly-formed Stage Ensemble has taken on the Hackney Empire - anything but the matchbox stage usually associated with fringe theatre. Appropriately called Taking Liberties, the show comprises a series of bite-sized pieces - rough, and varying wildly in style, but all characterised by great energy.

The evening starts well with a spoof tribute to the theatre's music hall background, and then rattles forward through the ten short pieces. Some are promising and play with form in interesting ways - in David Halliwell's Muck from Three Angles the same incident is shown three times from different points of view; in Clint Dyer's Fronting It, a two-hander about teenage boys trying to out-tough each other, the actors burst on to the stage and perform at high speed; in Rock, Stephen Clark's earnest and intermittently powerful poem about child abuse, effective use is made of a chorus. Most enjoyable is Matthew Hawkins's soberly performed pastiche of a classical ballet duet, danced by Hawkins and Diana Payne.

But the show begins to lose its way in the second half: much of the material is weaker, and the company's energy and hold on the space seems to wane. Sara Sugarman's Cock of the Nylon Sock is set among misfits in a station burger bar and explores language intriguingly, but by this time the evening has deflated and the play looks exposed on the big stage. Nonetheless, this is a bold opening gambit and if the company can build on its experience, it might stage some good work.

A less happy venture into the wilder shores of the Fringe comes in the shape of Ad Hoc's production of The Maids, in the gay nightclub Heaven. The setting makes an interesting context for Genet's exploration of role-play and domination and the production is handsomely designed by Derek Jarman - the white drapes and beautifully arranged gladioli of the mistress's bedroom creating a quasi-religious atmosphere which ironically frames the ritualistic behaviour of the maids. Christopher Payton's production is high-voltage; the two maids' fantasies are camped up, while their erotically-charged power games become bestial. The problem with it is that it starts at the top and has nowhere to go from there: the maids (Michele and Tania Wade) howl and shriek throughout, the net result being that they never appear truly menacing and the play loses its power.

In the end, though, the image most readily conjured by the phrase 'fringe theatre' is probably the one-man show in the room above the pub. At Greenwich Studio, Rosa Productions, making a virtue of this cliche, is staging a festival of solo shows in a room above a pub. Among the first week's offerings, three share common themes - each dealing with fighting, survival and self-definition. But there the similarity ends.

Paul Cahill's The Bad Bohemian is an engaging show about Jaroslav Hasek, author of The Good Soldier Schweik. Hasek was a bohemian Bohemian, fond of wine, who found himself conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army when WWI broke out and devoted the next few years to saving his skin. Cahill relishes Hasek's blatant cowardice and, by interleaving his story with portraits of deranged army officers, neatly presents his amorality as a necessary survival technique in an insane and confusing world.

By contrast, Tim Newton's sinewy and powerful The Ballad of the Limehouse Rat tells a tall story set in 19th century London. This sinister ballad describes a giant rat, 12 feet long, who delights in terrorising the East End locals, and builds up to a battle between this monster and a rat-catcher. Jauntily written, and performed with great pace by Newton, the show draws a bleak portrait of life amongst the poor of that century. But as it progresses, the play reveals the bloodthirsty humans to be the real vermin of the piece and, by the end, the question lingers as to who was the true monster - the rat-catcher or the rat.

Battles between humans and mythical monsters feature again in Julian Glover's fine Beowulf - but the performance could scarcely be more different. Glover begins quietly, as a storyteller, and gradually slips into performing the exploits of Beowulf (his battles with Grendel, Grendel's mother and the dragon). Using a translation by Michael Alexander and Edwin Morgan (laced with vivid images such as 'the flashing- armed queen'), Glover weaves in phrases and descriptions in beautiful Old English at high and low points of the story. It is a gracefully modulated and tightly paced performance, Glover using the simplest of gestures to indicate a change of place and mood (he sits at a table and suddenly he is a Dane, worried sick about the monster Grendel's nightly raids). And such is the atmosphere he builds up that, the night I was there, as he described Beowulf being snatched by Grendel's gruesome mother, the person in front of me jumped. This is the sort of show that is a joy to find on the Fringe - or as we may soon all be calling it, the off-off-West End.

'Taking Liberties' continues to 23 Jan, Hackney Empire, London E8 (081-985 2424)

'The Maids' continues to 29 Jan at Heaven, London WC2 (071-839 3852 / 071-706 2553)

'Solo Shows' continues to 7 Feb, Greenwich Studio Theatre, Prince of Orange, London SE10 (081-858 2862)

(Photograph omitted)