THEATRE / The Fringe: The passion killers

Anna Reynolds's first play, Jordan, was a revelation - a study of a woman who has killed someone she loved that was both movingly compassionate and ruthlessly thorough in the way it imagined her thoughts and feelings. Red is a study of two women who have each killed (or helped to kill) someone they loved. Again, it manages to be compassionate and ruthless. But the second time around, the achievement seems much less impressive.

Perhaps that's partly because I saw Jordan only a month ago; and the similarities in theme and structure - occasionally extending to specific echoes of lines - stand out more clearly than they otherwise would. Perhaps, too, the impact is diminished by sharing the play between two women - middle-aged, middle-class Gerda (Carrie Thomas) and young, wild Kay (Leonora Rogers-Wright), talking over the murder of their husbands in the cells beneath the court. Pacing and technique, startlingly well-controlled in Jordan, are dissipated.

The real problem, though, is that both plays are about the individuality of murder - how it spills outside the categories of our legal system, defying easy judgement. But Reynolds's murderers seem to be individuals in essentially similar ways; a plea for uniqueness begins to look like a generalisation.

A defiance of easy judgement has always been Howard Barker's most notable characteristic. Hated Nightfall has been touted as his most accessible play, which is like talking about Samuel Beckett's jolliest, or John Osborne's most feminist. The posters fib when they say it is a reconstruction of the last night of the Russian imperial family - unless you believe that they spent their final hours being taunted by a logorrhoeic revolutionary who spends much of his time in dispute with eyeless figures who press in on him through translucent walls.

Barker's own production has tedious stretches, and much of the language and imagery is wildly incomprehensible. But that's part of Barker's charm - you never know whether he's a genius or a fraud. And the actors have such fun jumping through his verbal hoops - particularly Ian McDiarmid, whose jerking, obscure tutor is a comic masterpiece.

'Red' continues to 24 April at the New End, London NW3 (071-794 0022), then tours. 'Hated Nightfall', Royal Court, SW1 (071-730 2554)

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