Theatre: An excellent criminal record

On the Fringe
IT'S EASY to mock the hubris of fringe theatre companies, to knock the spirit of vaulting ambition that often sends our least experienced actors off to tackle the hardest works the canon can hurl at them.

The National Theatre of Brent has become a comic institution by repeatedly pillorying thespian delusions of grandeur with its shoestring epics. A production of Crime and Punishment by 16 actors at the tiny Finborough in west London sounds like another example of a company with ideas above its venue. But the members of Steam Industry have come up trumps.

The main reason for this, oddly enough, is that they don't overreach themselves. The chosen text is the one Rodney Ackland devised in 1946 - little heard of after its initial run with John Gielgud and Edith Evans. The playwright remorselessly shredded those pages of gibbering monologues and fevered descriptions of St Petersburg low-life and delivered the bare bones of the story, confining the action to the house of Amalia Ludwigovna - the landlady of the wretched student Raskolnikoff. The result is brief (one and three quarter hours) and to the point.

The Finborough's chicken coop space has been exploited by designers Tamasin Rhymes and Rupert Tebb, who range us along three sides of the acting area in railed wooden stands, like nosey neighbours in a crowded tenement or jurors at a makeshift court. Stygian lighting reinforces a sense of the moral murk in which Raskolnikoff can hatch his murder-friendly theory of a world divided between lice and men.

The biggest edit is that we aren't shown the old pawnbroker being bludgeoned to death, which helps both to sidestep melodrama and register how impalpable the crime is to its perpetrator. Mark Collison strikes the perfect balance between loveable and contemptible rogue: as scrawny as an abandoned mut, this Raskolnikoff's skin is so thin, we can almost see him twisting inside as he is goaded by police inspector Porfiri, whom the director, Phil Willmott, plays with a smug detachment.

An adaptation could probably thrive solely on the basis of this double- act. Certainly, the other parts are two-dimensional by comparison; so much so that the brief, brawling crowd scenes have the feel of Fast Show sketches.

But the size of the cast isn't simply attention-seeking - by the time Raskolnikoff's helpmeet, the pure-at-heart prostitute, Sonia (Kirsty McFarland), has persuaded him to confess his guilt in the streets, we are in little doubt that the society before which he kneels is so spiritually destitute as to lend him a kind of innocence.

In Sophocles' Oedipus the King, vigorously attempted by the National Youth Theatre, there is a similar journey towards an admission of culpability that the protagonist holds off until the last minute.

The trick, again, is to keep startling the audience, as though the pieces of the jigsaw detailing a tragedy whose outline is already familiar, were being put together for the first time. William Kerley, the director, achieves this through the positioning of a massive 33-strong Theban chorus, who sniffle, hiss, sing, chant and stomp their responses - punctuating a tribal steel drum beat with the insistent clatter of pots and pans.

Just shepherding them into position would have been worth an award, but there are some stunning tableaux, most ominously, during Jocasta's revelations, their silhouettes rise up against the glowing cyclorama of Lotte Collett's parched landscape like gathering vultures. The ensemble posturings are more striking than the individual performances: Tom Padden's Oedipus has a delivery of Blair-like sanctimoniousness, which explains why the gods have got it in for him; initially impressive, the rapturous tone doesn't sit so well with defeat.

Neil Simon's 1985 gender rewrite of his 1965 flatmate-from-hell hit The Odd Couple lacks the freshness of the original - even supposing one could block out the memory of Walter Matthau's hangdog performance as Oscar, the man who takes in his anally retentive, suicidal chum and lives to regret it.

Still, Pinnacle Productions (a company set up for actors with day jobs) have a good stab, with Alexis Nishihata and Anita Booth providing the laconic versus drippy opposition needed to fire Simon's gags. So what if the apartment looks irredeemably Battersea? You gotta try.

`Crime and Punishment', Finborough Theatre, SW10, (0171-373 3842) to 19 Sept; `Oedipus the King', Bloomsbury Theatre, WC1, (0171-388 8822) to 19 Sept; `The Odd Couple', Grace Theatre, SW11, (0171-223 3549) to 26 Sept