THEATRE / Edge of darkness, or Bleasdale's apocalypse now: On the Ledge - Playhouse, Nottingham; On the Piste - Garrick; Karenina - Tricycle; Coaldust Affair - Old Town Hall, Hemel Hempstead

A LADY from Manchester writes to reprove me for trashing the phrase 'community theatre': a form, she says, that 'attempts to make a difference in our increasingly unequal society'. I hope she sees Alan Bleasdale's On the Ledge, in which a friendly neighbourhood fireman, hoisted above a blazing council estate, declares, 'I'll kill anyone who mentions the word 'community]' '

Bleasdale, I imagine, would have put a match to this long-meditated piece rather than call it a community play. But that is what it is. It shows what lies behind that equally glib phrase, 'inner-city dereliction' - a social junkheap where despair and self-hatred have reduced people to destroying their own homes. The location is unspecified; but what lights it up are the 1981 fires of Bleasdale's Toxteth. This is the first frontline British play of the 1990s, and it makes you see why former 'state of Britain' writers have dropped the subject. The gorillas have taken over - a species, as Robert Ardrey once pointed out, that signals its approaching extinction by fouling its own nests. The play is a howl of appalled, uncontainable rage; but I do not think Bleasdale has fooled himself into believing that it will make a scrap of difference.

In the television drama GBH he tackled corruption at town hall level; in the play he follows it on to the streets - or, more precisely, to the top floors of a derelict tower block. Here, crashing in and out of the boarded-up windows of William Dudley's set as in some hellish bedroom farce, are a Rachmanite villain (Shaun) and his two sledgehammer-swinging heavies, a girl on the run, and a thieving pair of self-styled anarchists first seen inscribing their creed on the brickwork. The one with the paint-brush spells it, 'ANACHRY', perhaps because his mate is holding him upside down. 'I want to die,' wails a voice from the next ledge down; it is a man in a suit. The anarchists confer: 'Let's spit on him.'

They are all on the ledge. And, even without Paul Allen's illuminating programme essay on the play's gestation, it is clear that Bleasdale began with the social metaphor before translating it into a workable environment for actors. In Robin Lefevre's National Theatre co- production, the mechanics still creak. Instead of a comic trampoline, the set is an obstacle to be negotiated by characters craning their necks to speak from one level to another. There are brisk doings on the roof and in the one surviving flat, but out on the ledge movement has to be at snail's pace. The ledge may plausibly represent a sanctuary from the inferno down below, but this also means that when their quarry escapes on to it, the two heavies are left gnashing their teeth at the window instead of following her.

These would be serious complaints if Bleasdale had been trying to turn out an orthodox farce, rather than the apocalyptic piece he has written. Exposition? Forget it. What you see is the terrified Mal (Dearbhla Molloy) scrambling to safety as the sledgehammers smash through her matchwood door. It is the panic, brutality and graveyard jokes that count. Only later do you learn that Shaun is pursuing her for documents that would deliver him into the hands of the Fraud Squad. There is a perfectly good plot, which Bleasdale deliberately displaces so as to convey the surreal extremity of these people's lives. Mal apart, they are all comic figures; even Paul Broughton, a gum-chomping ogre infatuated with his Ford Cortina; Mal's married lover, pouring out domestic grievances that date back to decimilisation; and Gary Olsen as the disenchanted fireman who succeeds in rescuing the one member of the group who wants to die. Shaun finally snatches back the documents. 'I've got the truth now,' he says as he sets them alight. 'All you've got is fucking opinions.' No writer ever penned a more despairing line.

There is plenty in common between Bleasdale's bruisers and the northern oafs who collide amid the Austrian snows in John Godber's On the Piste; with the difference that Godber's high-rise party is offered as a harmless bit of fun. We see their pratfalls on the nursery slopes and follow their ascent to the mountain top, getting to know them better all the time: Dave, the car salesman who has brought the squeaky Bev along as 'something to do when the pubs shut'; and Chris, a DJ, who tries to ditch his girlfriend of 10 years in favour of the classy Melissa. Ah well, that's what they're like, Godber implies, as they lurch through seaside postcard motions of furtive lust, jealousy, and beery aggression. This is a good subject, with well-clowned skiing routines in Bob Tomson's production. The plot turns on a series of unprepared and unbelievable decisions; and the characters are such as to strangle laughter in the cradle.

Helen Edmundson's adaptation of Anna Karenina opens with a prologue for the heroine and Levin - two characters who hardly meet in the book: one heading for darkness, the other for Earthly salvation. Both remain on stage observing each other's stories for most of Nancy Meckler's (Shared Experience) production. Seeing it is no substitute for reading Tolstoy, but it achieves one thing that is beyond the reach of the novelist: simultaneous action. Here is Kitty having jealous hysterics in Moscow, with Anna and Vronsky knee-to-knee in St Petersburg; Levin leads his bride in a rapturous wedding procession while Dolly reflects on her 15 miserable years with Stiva. And at last Levin whirls Kitty into an ecstatic dance of childbirth while Anna, merging into the robotically advancing company, goes under the wheels of the train. The choreography is wonderful, but so integrated with the book's polarities that the meaning eclipses the image.

There are some stunning set pieces, including a swooningly erotic seduction in which the partners barely touch. The direction, on a stage furnished only with bentwood chairs and an upstage sliding panel, is masterly; but never at the expense of individual performances, which present a mask-like profile (David Fielder's glacial Karenin, Jessica Lloyd's vapidly emotional Kitty) which then shatters under the pressure of feeling. None more so than Richard Hope's irascibly farouche Levin, and Teresa Banham's Anna, a voluptuous black-velvet friend to everyone, who takes her last walk spitting venom at the passers-by. Magnificent.

Having despaired of the Actors Touring Company, I am glad to announce a modest recovery in Jane Collins's production of The Coaldust Affair: a Labiche farce of the 1850s in which a misread newspaper leads two upright citizens into believing they have committed murder. Part-singing and audience participation periodically gum up the farcical works; otherwise it revs up a treat.

'On the Ledge', Playhouse, Nottingham (0602 419419); 'On the Piste', Garrick (071-494 5985); 'Karenina', Tricycle (071- 328 1000); 'Coaldust Affair', Old Town Hall, Hemel Hempstead (0442 242827).

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