<preform>Etta Jenks, Finborough, London</br>The Small Things, Menier Chocolate Factory, London</preform>

The naked truth - what's so shocking about that?
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The Independent Culture

Back in 1990, when the Royal Court first produced Marlane Gomard Meyer's Etta Jenks, this lean play about a woman's journey from wannabe actress to skinflick empress may have surprised some people. Not so today, when every other TV documentary penetrates the world of American porn. To tell us now that that industry may be an exploitative knacker's yard for youthful dreams is akin to breaking news about the Pope's Catholicism.

Back in 1990, when the Royal Court first produced Marlane Gomard Meyer's Etta Jenks, this lean play about a woman's journey from wannabe actress to skinflick empress may have surprised some people. Not so today, when every other TV documentary penetrates the world of American porn. To tell us now that that industry may be an exploitative knacker's yard for youthful dreams is akin to breaking news about the Pope's Catholicism.

The director, Che Walker, is no stranger to life's seamier underbelly - as a writer, he gave us Flesh Wound at the Court. But his production doesn't convince. Daniela Nardini is unlikely casting as the titular Tinseltown ingénue, and her accent is as up-and-down as a trip through the Rockies. On an unprepossessing set, which crassly depicts sharks circling by a seashore, Walker generates little sense of the menace or manipulativeness of an industry that preys on vulnerable young women. And Glenn Conroy's Ben, a hardcore producer-turned-snuff director, is too much the stereotypical slimeball to take wholly seriously.

It picks up. Nardini is more persuasive as Etta graduates to "talent co-ordinator" in the business to which she's sacrificed her hopes. As a smooth-talking skinflick impresario, Clarke Peters is as charismatic as ever in a role he could play with his hands tied to the bed. And, as two drolly vicious assassins, Mido Hamada and Chris O'Dowd introduce the only characters who don't feel like ciphers in a seminar about the Dangers of Porn. You may agree with Meyer's sentiment - but the porn phenomenon throws up complicated questions which Etta Jenks seldom touches.

In Spoken Here, Mark Abley's terrific book about dying languages, we meet the last two people on earth who can speak the Aboriginal dialect of Mati Ke. Alas, their culture forbids them, as brother and sister, to actually speak it. Their plight is brought to mind by Enda Walsh's new play, The Small Things, which opens Paines Plough's season at the Menier. If you can imagine a hybrid of Beckett's Endgame and Caryl Churchill's Far Away, then recall that Walsh is the word-bender behind Disco Pigs, you'll be halfway (but not much more) to picturing this curious prose-play.

From the moment you notice that the armchairs and table on Neil Warmington's set are suspended inches above the floor, you'll know: this isn't a play with its feet on the ground. In its world, speech has been outlawed. Its two characters, both elderly now, were children when the Silencing happened.

Tongues were cut out, order was insisted upon, and people were led away to a Paradise beyond the sea. Now the Man and Woman may be the last speakers alive. Separated by a canyon between two mountains, they tell one another, "I speak to you daily ... though you are surely dead, love."

An energetic leap of faith is required to believe in the fugitives' predicament, which Walsh makes no great effort to render plausible. Instead, he focuses on the Man and Woman's dreamy, lyrical impressions of their childhood and brutal separation. The pair's inability to communicate can be as frustrating for us as them. I suspect that these densely written near-monologues may be more rewarding on the page than the stage. But there's no gainsaying the plucky charm of Valerie Lilley and Bernard Gallacher's performances, or the passion of Walsh's rallying cry for chaos over routine, the indefinable over the classifiable, and for speech as nothing less than the meaning of life.

'Etta Jenks': Finborough, London SW10 (020 7373 3842), to 26 Feb; 'The Small Things': Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1 (020 7907 7060), to 27 Feb

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