tHedYsFUnCKshOnalZ!, Bush, London<br/>Chains, Orange Tree, London<br/>Invisible Bonfires, Toynbee Studios, London

Mike Packer's comedy about an ageing anarcho-punk band who sell out is certainly funny, but lacks maturity and depth
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The Independent Culture

Right, where was I? Before I was rudely interrupted by the end of last week's column, I was ranting about Desperately Seeking Susan, the West End musical, being superficially punky but cynically commercial underneath – just rehashing Blondie's old hits. Now, like a prompt satiric chaser, we have tHe dYsFUnCKshOnalZ!, Mike Packer's rock '*' rolling-in-it comedy about an ageing anarcho-punk band selling out.

The group's raddled and raging vocalist, Billy Abortion (Rupert Procter), tries to hold on to his 1970s anti-Establishmentarianism, but a corporation is offering big bucks to use his anthem, "Plastic People" in an ad campaign for its so-called Freedom Cards. These are credit/debit/travel-going-on-ID cards. Soon Billy and his cronies are clutching designer shopping bags and accepting invites to appear on I'm a Celebrity... (à la Johnny Rotten).

To his moral credit, Packer is taking on a far-reaching issue. While zooming in on a bunch of farcically lapsed anarchists, he is also critically eyeing today's whole culture of shameless materialism. In the broadest terms, Billy represents the death throes or serious compromising of pre-Thatcherite left-wing ideals (anarchistic/socialist/hippie as well as principles of artistic integrity).

What's joyous is that the band's mouthy exchanges are often cryingly funny, with a nod to Spinal Tap and The Young Ones. Indeed, this writer might well be a great addition to a TV sitcom team. Among Tamara Harvey's cast, Pearce Quigley is particularly hilarious as the shaggy bearded, dithering drummer, John, who repeats his four-letter expletives like a nervous stammer.

That said, this isn't a mature piece of theatre. The plot developments are a shambles. Packer's attempts at emotional depth are spasmodic and clumsy. The gags, meanwhile, start to sound overwritten, discernibly manufactured. Harvey lets her cast reel them off, conveyor-belt style, when finer-tuned naturalistic acting would have done the script a favour.

Still, I laughed a great deal. Moreover, there's something exuberantly in-yer-face about these actors launching – with electric guitars and raw yelling – into a live gig in this tiny pub theatre, pretending they're next door at the mighty Shepherd's Bush Empire.

Back in Edwardian West London – in Chains by Elizabeth Baker – the lower-middle classes are shackled to thankless jobs as clerks and shop girls. Most are too conservative to challenge the system. However, others, such as Charley Wilson's young lodger Fred, are rebelling by emigrating, with entrepreneurial ambitions. When Fred announces he's off, Charley is covertly tempted to take the leap with him, leaving his wife behind. His sister-in-law, Maggie – with a feminist spirit – palpably shares his impulse.

This forgotten gem from 1909 is a fascinating historic close-up, exposing socially divisive and shifting attitudes. But Chains is also startlingly timeless as the fat cats withhold pay rises and the workforce can't afford anything but cramped housing. Sound familiar?

A better director would have made this production really outstanding. Besides fussy set changes, Auriol Smith does not get all the performances into sharp focus. Charley's marital discontent isn't traced lucidly through every scene by Justin Avoth, and subtextual hints about closet gay traits aren't picked up.

Nonetheless, Ashley George's Fred exudes febrile excitement, Octavia Walters' Maggie is magnetic, and the Orange Tree is to be treasured for putting such fine period dramas back into circulation.

Finally, to the Toynbee Studios, the East End's new experimental performance venue. Well, the venue might be new, but wacky, multimedia clowns Chris and Tim Britton – aka the Brittonioni Brothers or Forkbeard Fantasy – have been playing around for yonks, stepping in and out of their own projected films. But for their latest show they're tackling the red-hot issue of climate change.

I say "tackling". Some might find Invisible Bonfires almost offensively scrappy and garbled. The opening scenario of an environment conference isn't seen through; a pre-recorded vox pop is largely drowned out by an on-stage band; Prospero's discarded book is retrieved from the sea to no apparent purpose (except that this was originally an RSC commission)....

Merely self-indulgent garbage? Not quite. Forkbeard's homegrown, junk aesthetic is the saving of it, as they pretend to generate their own electricity with a Heath-Robinsonian bike-cum-Teasmade. Invisible Bonfires also redeems itself with its wonderfully surreal and satirical newsflash about life forms evolving from our litter. Cut to footage of shoals of hypodermic syringes, pumping themselves around the ocean floor like exotic squids. One animated cartoon strip is also, in its way, up there with An Inconvenient Truth, trenchantly depicting mankind as the carbon weevil, a pestilent species that has overrun the planet with its wormcasts of motorways and cities. That the stand-out line in the closing scenes is "We've no control over our destiny!" strikes me as stupidly irresponsible. But, undeniably, the Brittonionis' vision of Pan rising, versus Mammon, from the bowels of the Earth – like a giant and potentially tempestuous force of Nature – undeniably taps into our profound sense of punitive doom.

'tHe dYsFUnCKshOnalZ!' (020 7610 4224) to 22 December; 'Chains' (020 8940 3633) to 15 December; 'Invisible Bonfires' (020 7650 2350) to 1 December. k.bassett@independent.co.uk

Further viewing The rock mockumentary 'This is Spinal Tap' (DVD, MGM Entertainment)

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