Two Steps, Almeida, London<br/>Gompers, Arcola, London<br/>Fully Committed, Menier Chocolate Factory, London

There's a ghost in this house - and it's making a mess of the bathroom
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The Independent Culture

The actress-turned-director, Josette Bushell-Mingo, is impressively busy. In October, her vibrant staging of the musical, Simply Heavenly, is transferring to the West End. A few months back, her production of Mother Courage - set in Nigeria - was touring the UK. Meantime, she has been orchestrating Push 'O4, and this season of shows by black artists is now presenting theatre, opera and ballet premieres in partnership with the Almeida, the ROH and ENO.

The actress-turned-director, Josette Bushell-Mingo, is impressively busy. In October, her vibrant staging of the musical, Simply Heavenly, is transferring to the West End. A few months back, her production of Mother Courage - set in Nigeria - was touring the UK. Meantime, she has been orchestrating Push 'O4, and this season of shows by black artists is now presenting theatre, opera and ballet premieres in partnership with the Almeida, the ROH and ENO.

Rhashan Stone is multi-tasking as well. Besides playing the gawky romantic lead in Simply Heavenly, he has written Two Step for Push - a seriocomic revenge drama. Lenny (Derek Griffiths) dumped Mona (Doña Croll) 30-odd years ago when he was a heavy drinker and she got pregnant. Now he's suddenly fetched up at her council flat, unrecognisably smart-suited and telling her all about his great new life as a writer - the house in Islington, the young white wife, the brilliant son etc. Mona is not best pleased and fights back with sarcastic jibes. Simultaneously, she is covering up mental instability, for she is haunted by the ghost of a girl who might be Mona's younger self, or the daughter she lost. When Lenny finally gets to the point - he wants to make amends, as one of the steps in his Alcoholics Anonymous recovery programme - Mona toys with forgiveness.

For a first play, this is pretty good. Stone has a sturdy dramatic structure, switching between Mona's disturbed visions and her flesh-and-blood visitors. Suspense is generated by ambiguous motives, with caring and vicious urges intertwined. Two Step is also potentially provocative, satirising AA's pseudo-religious jargon and raising questions about moral responsibility. On the other hand, after a wave of strong new plays by black writers (notably at the National and Royal Court), this fledgling work feels curiously old-fashioned. The closing twists could be tighter and, while Stone has an ear for quirky idioms and quips, his dialogue can be repetitive. The ghost's habit of talking in harrowed rhymes is awkward too.

Still, Bushell-Mingo's staging is absorbing, with Mona's home floating like a lonely island in the darkness and with Remi Wilson, as the restless ghost, silently drifting on the periphery or suddenly surfacing from Mona's bath, spraying water. Croll is amusingly stroppy, hurling herself into an armchair which flips violently into the reclining position and, though Lenny could become a verbose bore, Griffiths deftly shifts between boastfulness, nervous small talk and cruelty. It's good to see him back on stage.

In the titular, run-down town of Adam Rapp's new play, Gompers, racism lurks among a host of other social problems - drug-addiction, alcoholism, Aids, black-market heavies, roaming crazies. This is the US equivalent of playwright Vassily Sigarev's contemporary Russian hellholes. The chink of hope is that Molly and Stromile - two kids not yet dragged down by their deprived circumstances - will flee together and start a new life. Rapp is rising fast across the pond and Blackbird - his Bush Theatre debut in 2001 - was sharply focused, grim and mournful. Unfortunately, Gompers is more rambling, with a long chain of characters loitering around a tenement building and railway bridge. The combo of grim pessimism and rosy moments starts to feel slightly formulaic, and the plot twists - involving farcical routines with poisoned coffee and a mad colonel - are strained.

Presented in Arcola's converted factory space, this is an above-par fringe production with a large cast confidently taken on by Róisín McBrinn (recently assistant director at the Donmar). At the preview I saw, closer attention still needed to be paid to technical details, and one hopes the youngest actors will feel their way more fully into their scared and dangerously explosive characters. But Ray Shell is rock-solid as the suspicious cop and Nick Oshikanlu is outstanding as the shy, tender Stromile. Talent scouts take note.

Finally, in Southwark - the new Theatreland for fringe-lovers - the latest hot property is another converted factory, the Menier. This now houses a buzzing restaurant, bar and theatre - a set-up which adds a nice twist to Fully Committed, a hit from New York. Here we see an out-of-work actor having a horrible day, frantically manning the switchboard in an eaterie that's stuffed with the rich and famous.

Mark Setlock gives a virtuoso comic performance, playing both the sorely tried underdog and all the monstrously pushy and dippy callers on the other end of the line. Naomi Campbell's PA is a particular treat, at once insanely wired and blasé, repeatedly calling back with demands about more flattering light bulbs. The permanently fuming misery-guts of a chef is also a splendid, grotesque creation. Gordon Ramsay seems a sweetie by comparison.

One might dismiss this as a piece of fluff but it's highly enjoyable and you sense that bitter experience underlies the satirical caricatures (co-created by Setlock and writer Becky Mode, who used to be an actress and waitress). Actually, for all the laughs, this portrait of shocking hierarchical abuse and snobbishness has an unexpected, slow-burning power that George Bernard Shaw would have admired. It has earned its extended run.

'Two Step': Almeida, London N1 (020 7359 4404), to Sat; 'Gompers': Arcola, London E8 (020 7503 1646), to 18 Sept; 'Fully Committed': Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1 (020 7907 7060), to 17 Oct

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

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