THEATRE / Female, gifted and black

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The Independent Culture
HOT ON the trail of The Posse, the all-male black group who scored success last year at Stratford East with their revue Armed and Dangerous, comes another young black company with a fresh set of sketches. This time, however, it's ladies' night, with the seven-women strong BiBi Crew ('BiBi', their programme tells us, means 'Lady' in Swahili and Urdu) in a show called On a Level, a tour of their experiences of being Black and British.

From the minute they are born, the sketches suggest, black girls are faced with a confusion of different images. In one scene, a baby anticipates wearing a clothes-peg on her nose to pinch its shape; young girls play at having long blonde hair and being Miss World; a futuristic Britain is envisaged where to treat hair chemically becomes a crime, and ladies with 'relaxed' hair hide in trembling from the curly hair cops.

Some of the sketches are thin, and many could use a punchline - the writing is the weakest link in this well performed revue. There are some enjoyable highlights, though, among them an aerobics class in which a group of very ample ladies wiggle their hips with such gusto they reduce a Lycra'd fitness fanatic to a heap of jelly; 'a Caribbean tale', in which Jamaican grannies trade gossip entirely in local aphorisms (simultaneously translated for the East End ear); and the final funeral scene, in which a middle-aged lady gets her revenge on both her mean husband and his shrewish sister by cremating all of the man except his head. The audience could scarcely have been more appreciative: at one point, when a character sang the praises of the larger bosom, the uproar of enthusiasm held up the show for several minutes.

At the Cockpit Theatre, it's the turn of the men. Jonathan Lewis's all-male Our Boys is set entirely in one ward of a military hospital (Katrina Lindsay's antiseptic set even smells medicinal). Here, five squaddies are teasing the hours away, when their routine is disrupted by the arrival in the ward of an officer, or 'Rupert'. The men mistrust him automatically, until an illicit drinking game produces a truce.

Lewis's play explores some of the idiosyncrasies of army life, pursues the reasons his characters have joined (no other option, mostly), and examines the possible effects of blind obedience - one soldier has been shot in the head in Northern Ireland, another lost his toes to frostbite when an officer forbade him to remove his sodden boots. And the crisis erupts when one character faces his fear of being cast out, disabled, on to 'Civvy Street'.

The play's conclusions don't take you by surprise, but it is very sharply written, bristles with one-liners, and is directed (by Lewis himself) and performed with vigour, pace and sensitivity. The central scene switches from hilarity to sadness in an instant, and the extremely strong cast let us see the characters' fears: Sean Gilder as the Ulsterman, surly because he's scared; Perry Fenwick as the beady, frostbite case, and Jake Wood, oozing frustration as he gropes his way back to speech.

Sean O'Casey didn't give much quarter to fighting talk either in The Plough and the Stars. Paul Kerryson, in his production of this wise, difficult and passionate text at Leicester Haymarket, takes the spirit of the play into the staging: the spick-and- span Clitheroe household in Charles Cusick-Smith's set is flanked by barbed wire and overshadowed by a huge army recruitment poster and a giant pieta.

Kerryson boldly goes with the play, negotiating the melodramatic moments beautifully, and drawing the tragedy gradually out of the comedy. His production boasts excellent performances from Russell Dixon as Fluther Good, Nora Connolly as Bessie Burgess and John Cormack and Lorraine Ashbourne as Jack and Nora Clitheroe - the latter becoming very moving in the notorious mad scenes. Perhaps a little slow at the outset, this was otherwise a fine production that left a hush over the auditorium.

'On a Level' runs to 12 June at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, London E15 (081-534 0310); 'Our Boys' runs to 5 June, Cockpit Theatre, London NW8 (071-402 5081); 'The Plough and the Stars' has ended its run at Leicester Haymarket

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