Airsick, Bush Theatre

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The Independent Culture

Can we escape our past? To judge these two quirkily comic offerings, the answer is a troubled no. Airsick, by Emma Frost, follows the fortunes of two childhood friends, now in their early thirties. Artist Lucy (sensitively played by Celia Robinson) was born on the day in 1968 when a Princeton scientist identified black holes, so, as omens go, she might as well have given up right then. Yes, this is another piece that inflates itself with strained imagery from popular science.

Saddled with a hypochon-driac father (a very amusing Peter Jonfield) and newly arrived American lover (Eric Loren, all macho insecurity), Lucy wants to believe that we construct our fate and character is action. But, as some wincingly funny scenes bring home, she is the plaything of her history - compelled to seek out men who will make her feel as worthless as her father did.

Trying to break this cycle, she is drawn to Gabriel (Gideon Turner), a New Zealand drifter who, it turns out, is prepared to infect people with more than his easy charm. Her friend Scarlet (Susannah Doyle) hops from bed to bed and subjects the audience to long, explicit confessional monologues. In Mike Bradwell's otherwise attractive production, these grate, not only because of the top-heavy comedienne manner, but because you just know that this is all leading up to The Revelation about her childhood.

The bizarre manner in which Scarlet manages almost to defeat as well as repeat (by achieving her first orgasm) the pattern is an example of how the play forces its material into awkward patterns, both in terms of plot and imagery. But Frost has an eye for telling social detail (Lucy's lover has come over, not for her, but because there are more insurance jobs in London than in post-September 11 New York): you sense she will write better plays.

Phil Porter's Stealing Sweets and Punching People is another promising piece, premiered in Crispin Bonham Carter's darkly beguiling production. Emily, a motherless 16-year-old, is suffocated by a father who insists on styling her hair and dress, and who likes to have heart-to-hearts with her sitting on his back, pony-fashion.

Mariah Gale gives a remarkable, disconcerting performance as a girl who would like to clear with one mad jump the gulf between this arrested childhood and passionate sexuality. The guilty secret from her past has led her into ritual self-harming. But, while she wants to break free, she is determined that her father will not find a new life in a relationship with the owner of the junk shop (Jacquetta May, deliciously scatty) where she works.

Her scenes with Ben (Simon Bubb), the kindly 19-year-old who, to her dismay, refuses to take advantage of her, are gems of agonising cross-purpose comedy. In these two plays, it seems you can give the past the slip only by either dying or reconvening it on your own terms.

'Airsick', to 8 Nov (020-7610 4224); 'Stealing Sweets...', to 26 Oct (020-7978 7040)

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