THEATRE / Cracking up, getting ready to go

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Women are on the verge of a nervous breakdown on stages all over London. At least three productions on the Fringe this week have a central character cracking up, breaking down or breaking out. But Out of the Ordinary, Leonora's Dance and Confetti come at their lonely characters from very different angles.

Betty, in Debbie Isitt's Out of the Ordinary (The Snarling Beasties, Royal Court Upstairs, SW1) has backed herself into a cul-de-sac. You don't go to Isitt's plays expecting a rosy, cosy view of relationships - starting with Punch and Judy, which dealt with domestic violence, her plays have probed communication breakdown between the sexes. This latest is in a sense the grimmest yet, since it turns its back on the stylisation and humour that allowed audiences some distance from the others. This is a raw portrayal of a woman who is drowning and is dragging her partner and would-be rescuer down with her. This time there is affection between them, but even this offers little hope.

Betty is a writer suffering from acute writer's block, agoraphobia and a devastating sense of insecurity. Due to deliver a book on Hitchcock, she hides from her agent, spends whole days in bed and buries the business letters her boyfriend, Brian, asks her to post in the garden. Her condition is pitiable, yet her self-lacerating and self-pitying behaviour turns her into a monster and nothing Brian - a monument of patience - can do seems to make amends. If he goes to work he's abandoning her, if he stays home he's patronising her - and so it goes, on and on and on.

This is the difficulty with the play. It creates Betty's nightmare world extremely well and is powerfully performed by Isitt herself (who also directs) and Mark Kilmurry. But the play can go nowhere except downwards and it is so relentless that by the end, however sorry you feel for Betty, it takes a massive effort of will not to invade the stage and put a bag over her head.

Zindika, in her play Leonora's Dance (Black Theatre Co-Op, Cockpit, NW8), approaches her agoraphobic protagonist with a much more open style. Leonora is also a recluse and has again walled herself up against her sense of failure. Born in Jamaica to a white father and black mother, she came to Britain, we learn, hoping for a career in ballet, but her colour mitigated against her. Her bitterness and her fear of London have made her paranoid. Zindika deals with her schizophrenia in an interesting way, however: here Leonora's unhappiness has laid her open to the influence of a malevolent spirit, Medusa. Whenever Leonora seems to her lodgers to be talking to herself, she is in fact talking to Medusa (in Joan-Ann Maynard's witty production this is handled very effectively).

There is rather too much crammed into this play - half-explored issues, such as one character's illiteracy, tend to tug it off-centre. But it is jauntily written and the interplay between the characters is fascinating as all of them, caught awkwardly between their ancestry and their daily lives, struggle to find their spiritual bearings. The scenes between Leonora's lodgers - Daphine, a defiant black Liverpudlian, and Melissa, a quiet Chinese student - are funny and touching, and are beautifully performed by Doreene Blackstock and Toshie Ogura. There are fine performances, too, from Judy Hepburn as Leonora and Ellen Thomas, as her Caribbean mother who arrives to dispel the evil spirit, fills the stage with warmth.

Two disillusioned, lonely women are also at the centre of Nicola Baldwin's Confetti (Chelsea Centre, SW10). Linda (Helen Sheals), a waif-like teenage misfit who believes in UFOs, is about to run away to London; Jackie (Nicola White), a buxom bride-to-be, is about to embark on a second-rate marriage. Neither, we suspect, is going to fare well, but when they stumble upon each other in a Huddersfield pub they share a few hours of unexpected closeness. Though otherwise rather bitty, Baldwin's comedy explores this central relationship with a sparky humour that shows much promise.

'Out of the Ordinary' to 27 Feb (071-730 1745); 'Leonora's Dance' to 6 Mar (402 5081); 'Confetti' to 27 Feb (352 1967).