The Baby And Fly Pie, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

In Iqbal Khan's fast-moving and imaginative production of Melvin Burgess's thriller The Baby and Fly Pie the action moves swiftly from a tip - where three children who are scouring for salvage stumble across a wounded gunman and a baby - to a teaming squat, to a chilling, anonymous cityscape. It's an engrossing ninety minutes. The young teenagers around me were clearly absorbed in the sordid tale, even if the play's altered and disturbing finale proves no less ambiguous than the book's ending.

The Baby and Fly Pie, shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 1994, now relocated to Manchester in a new adaptation by Lavinia Murray, is a far cry from Harry Potter. Followers of Burgess (who lives in the suburbs of Manchester) will know that in his imaginative cult books for teenagers such as Junk and Lady: My Life as a Bitch he doesn't shrink from confronting the seedier aspects of our times - sex, drug abuse, prostitution and corruption. Here, three orphans, their lives darkly coloured by a sense of their own worthlessness, are forced to take flight and fight for survival with the baby, the victim of a bungled kidnapping, whose ransom is set at £17m. The kids themselves are victims - of poverty, callousness and gang warfare - but their pity for the baby helps to unpeel their own fragile hopes as, consciences pricking, they manage to identify some sense of right and wrong.

Benjamin Warren, Calum Callaghan and Emma Hartley-Miller are excellent in their portrayal of the children, Fly Pie, Sham and Jane, ably supported by a supporting cast of two who take all the other parts, including a ruthless female pimp, a crusty down-and-out and a floury caricature of a baker. Davey may be Fly Pie but when discord breaks out between the central trio, Sham is the fly, not in the pie, but in the ointment. Angela Simpson's designs, making ingenious use of puppets, masks, stilts and other basic props, keep the focus of the action, as well as the audience, constantly on the move. This Baby and Fly Pie is a little shocker, especially in the youngsters' chilling contact with the baby's father, a newspaper magnate and possible gang boss. Engrossing in its twists and turns, it deserves a life after this run.

To 31 July (0161-833 9833)

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