Theatre: Home is where the rant is

Prize Night Royal Exchange, Manchester Kolonists Bridge Lane Theatre, London Max Black Lyric Hammersmith, London
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By heck, it's grim down South. Or that's the message of Jim Cartwright's entertaining Prize Night, in which a homecoming local boy made good begs the "fine Northern rain" to "cleanse" him. The character in question - Burn - has embarked on the traditional rover's return: drinking, dancing, revisiting old haunts, regretting rash decisions and moaning about career crises, loveless marriages and life in uncaring London. Cathartic? Nearly. For Cartwright's play, though passionate and insightful, is also very, very self-indulgent.

For Burn went to the capital and found fame and fortune as a novelist. Back home, his acquaintances revere his youthful talent for everything ("a back-street Byron in football boots, with one hand down a bra"), and heap praise on his subsequent success. None of them give him a slap for being an ungrateful whinger. And the flaw of self-pity is exacerbated by the fact that Cartwright himself plays Burn. There's the inevitable temptation to read the sentiments as autobiographical; and Cartwright's declamatory delivery does his lyrical writing few favours.

But, as a whole, Prize Night is enjoyable and endearingly quirky; and there is, initially, an excuse for Burn's monotone rants. We first see him knocking over chairs in his old classroom: he's done a drunken bunk from his school's prize-giving ceremony, at which he was guest of honour. His old sweetheart, Ann, now a school cleaner, finds him, and together they go on a nocturnal trip around the landmarks of their past, with Burn's namby-pamby, northern-phobic personal assistant (Adam Zane) in comic pursuit.

The surreal humour of these episodes, in Gregory Hersov's energetic production, is relentless. In a dreamlike sequence, figures from Burn's past whiz around him at the kitsch roller-disco. Then, in Laurie Dennett's skilful design, the local pub glides on to the stage like a supertanker. To compete with theme-pubs, the prankster landlord (an anarchic David Fielder) throws blow-up dolls over the counter when Boddies' is ordered and dons comedy hats for non-English drinks. In a friend's kitchen Cartwright ladles in a good dollop of farce: an interrupted seduction on the table; guilty people hiding under it; entrances and exits through the window.

As Ann, Kathy Jamieson has little to do except traipse around after Burn, prevent him from jumping off a rusting industrial flue into the path of a train and, despite her enduring affection, touchingly reject him. Her quiet but watchable presence is a welcome counterpoint to Cart- wright's verbosity. The rest of the cast take on a wonderful series of larger-than-life eccentrics - Alan Gear's Huga Muga is a particularly memorable creation - and the appearance of Anthony Booth, the Prime Minister's father-in-law, provides a cheeky frisson. A flat-capped Booth relishes his pub-philosopher's socialist tirade about how the workers, "bent by poverty and humiliation", have been let down; then he's back, as "Karaoke Ken", looking like a terrifying cross between Ray Reardon and Ronald Reagan and cracking jokes about spin doctors.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the small company NXT is producing a month-long season of plays, platform performances and seminars about the momentous changes in Eastern Europe. It's a vital and timely event: Chechnya is a salutary reminder that there's a lot of unfinished business going on behind the raised Iron Curtain. And Kolonists, the centrepiece of "November: Fall of the Wall", touches on the implications of the war in Chechnya - namely, "Don't f--- with Russia".But its focus is on independent Estonia, and the attempts of a once well-to-do Russian family to shift their position within the redrawn map. Steven Dykes's fresh and challenging play begins in Chekhovian vein, with three sisters lolling in their family's coastal summerhouse. It looks like a faded snapshot - until New Russia enters the frame, drunk and abusive, in the shady shape of Muscovite cousin Vassily (played by Dykes, with a compelling, nastiness) and his provocative PVC-clad "companion" Natasha (a raunchily manipulative Victoria Pembroke). Dykes skilfully sets up the ructions in the Rusakovs' relationships with each other - and Estonia - as a microcosm of the power politics and dodgy economics of the former Soviet Union. His disturbing but engaging study explains what happens to those who find themselves on neither side of the balance of power, whose local identity has been changed without their consent, and whose homeland has altered beyond recognition.

For three days at the Lyric, Hammersmith last week, Andre Wilms played with fire, formulae and anything that would make a noise in his mad scientist's laboratory. Heiner Goebb-els's Max Black was an intriguing piece of music- theatre, with Wilms delivering mad-scientist jargon and philosophical musings from Wittgenstein and Valery in subtitled French. It was barmy, and all the more entertaining once it was clear that watching and listening, rather than making sense of it, was the only option.

`Prize Night': Royal Exchange, Manchester (0161 833 9833) to 20 November. `Kolonists': Bridge Lane Theatre, SW11 (0171 228 8828) in rep to 27 November

Robert Butler returns next week

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