THEATRE / London Fringe: Between heaven and hell: Purgatory becomes clearer to Robert Hanks when he experiences it on three different levels

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The Independent Culture
Anybody who spends much time going around the London fringe will have a shrewd notion of what Purgatory is like, so David Upsher's Move On Up should be familiar territory. He does offer some variation, though. Purgatory is usually described as a waiting-room for Heaven - promotion is automatic once you've done your time. In Upsher's more uncomfortable version, relegation is a distinct and unnerving possibility.

The poor souls who have to deal with this are Nicky, a good-time girl who's drunk herself to death at a good party, and Tess, an uptight woman who, it turns out, has just been beaten to death by her husband. They find themselves in a bare living-room with plaster ducks flying up beige wallpaper (design by Simon Beresford). A mysterious official, a combination of celestial jobsworth and game-show host from Hell, explains that they have a limited time to answer a written test - questions about sins committed, commandments broken - and their final destination will depend on the answers. Even if they mess up the test, though, they can still redeem themselves by repentance, good behaviour and suffering.

Naturally, 'they each have a lot to learn'. As the play progresses, Tess loosens up, Nicky straightens herself out, and they bond. There are some quirky touches - cigarette packets without health warnings, a bacon sandwich ex machina - but for all its theological originality, in dramatic terms this is pretty damned conventional.

There's a more mundane, more frightening kind of purgatory in Smirnova's Birthday, a double-bill of plays by Ludmila Petrushevskaya written in Brezhnev's Soviet Union. In Arts Threshold's production the two plays, Smirnova's Birthday and Cinzano, take place simultaneously on different parts of the open stage, scenes alternating and overlapping. In Cinzano, directed by Liz Ash, three men, Pasha, Kostya and Valya, get blind drunk on bottles of Cinzano in an abandoned flat in Moscow. Meanwhile, Smirnova's Birthday, directed by Tim Welton, shows their women getting slightly less drunk at Smirnova's place, talking about children, abortions, dying parents and what bastards men are.

The plays work well together - the shifts of scene provide an occasional glimmer of contrast among the overwhelming gloom - but the wild, boozing sprawl of Cinzano sometimes overshadows the comparatively cerebral action of Smirnova's Birthday.

At a preview, none of the cast of Smirnova's Birthday seemed entirely at home with their parts, shifting uneasily between stylisation and naturalism, and generally acting too visibly. The men have an easier job on their hands, running through different degrees of drunkenness, ending up in a state of awesome, miserable collapse.

It is not a wonderful production - the cast are too young, the budget is obviously too low - but Petrushevskaya's writing still comes across powerfully in Stephen Mulrine's translation. And you never feel that the plays are museum pieces - that now the Soviet Union's collapsed, this is irrelevant. Apart from anything else, a society this far gone is going to take a long time to recover.

Finally, another sterile, repressive bureaucracy: Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, performed by the David Glass Company, has arrived at the Lyric, Hammersmith.

There are cynics who think that 'physical theatre' is a euphemism for jerky movement, silly voices, over-acting and too much make-up; and this probably won't change their minds.

The gothic detail of Peake's stagnant world, ruled by a fabulously complex system of ritual, is ingeniously imagined, but the ingenuity is spread thin over two and a half hours. But it's certainly worth seeing if you think you can get time knocked off purgatory in exchange.

'Move On Up' is at the Hen and Chickens, London N1, until 4 Sept (Booking: 071-704 2001). 'Smirnova's Birthday' is at Arts Threshold, London W2, until 11 Sept (071-262 1629). 'Gormenghast' is at the Lyric, Hammersmith, London W6, until 28 Aug (081-741 2311)

(Photograph omitted)