THEATRE / Games of power and ping-pong

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PAUL Eddington, left on his own for a while in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land, stands motionless until the bang of a door off-stage provokes a sudden stiffening in his stance. It is just a tiny movement, yet with it Eddington conveys a whole freight of anticipation, fear and doubt, lifting his ear and nose to the wind like a startled animal.

David Leveaux's excellent production (which has just transferred to the Comedy from the Almeida) brings out the guts as well as the brains in Pinter's piece. As the four men in Hirst's drawing-room play sophisticated games with language, bending time with words and making certainties slither, they appear thoroughly suave yet they command territory like caged beasts. What emerges clearly in this production is not only how cleverly Pinter phrases metaphysical questions but how adroitly he seizes on basic power tactics and uses them in his stagecraft: the words manipulate ideas on the surface, while below there is a solid structure which keeps moving with a constantly changing power-base.

This is handled nimbly throughout - Foster and Briggs (Douglas Hodge and Gawn Grainger) relishing their menacing game of ping-pong with the word 'friend' - but is realised brilliantly by Eddington and Pinter himself. Pinter's Hirst starts out such a bull that it is hard to recognise him in the deflated being who crawls on later. Eddington matches him move for move in a performance of beautiful exactness, until finally the successful recluse and the failed poet seem two sides of the same man - all the facts of their lives immaterial beside their shared experience of some sort of personal withering.

In a sense, Naomi Wallace's The War Boys, at the Finborough Arms, enters similar territory, exploring the shifting balance of power between three men with nowhere to go. Her style, however, owes more to Sam Shepard - not as poetic as the master of American misfits, but taut and edgy. The 'war boys' are a trio of screwed up American youths who hang around the Mexican border in their car, earning money from the local police by spotting on illegal immigrants. While waiting, they bully one another and each with the source of his warped personality.

A callous law student, a dopey no-hoper and a solid half-chicano, the three offer perhaps too neat a cross-section of America's problem youth, but the play is still strong and Kate Valentine's atmospheric production fields impressive and controlled performances from Ethan Flower, Bradley Lavelle and Matthew Sharp.

Les Miller's Raising Hell, at the Old Red Lion, also delves into a dubious power-based relationship. Here, a lonely black magic fan summons up the spirit of the occultist Aleister Crowley and gets more than he bargained for. Crowley turns up demanding sex and drugs and making pronouncements like 'the world is our arsehole'. The two proceed further and further into the black, eating faeces, drinking blood and performing 'sex Magick'. Structured as a series of rituals, the play is written and performed at such a hysterical pitch that it soon palls. You learn more about Crowley from reading the programme note.

Finally, if you want an evening of pure escapism, visit the Riverside, currently home to Le Cirque Invisible. Victoria Chaplin and Jean Baptiste Thierree have been performing for 20 years; with their latest show, they slim down the circus to just themselves and their son, James. They present a beguiling series of tricks, surreal jokes and running gags, and while much of the act is throwaway, they show their skill with a mesmerising acrobatic routine on bungee-ropes and an absurd bicycle sequence. Deft, daft and irresistible - and they produce rabbits from a hat.

'No Man's Land' is at the Comedy, London SW1 (071-867 1045); 'War Boys', to 27 February, Finborough Arms, SW10 (071-373 3842); 'Raising Hell', to 27 February, Old Red Lion, EC1 (071-837 7816); 'Le Cirque Invisible', to 6 March, Riverside Studios, W6 (081-748 3354)