THEATRE / Off West End: Flying high

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The Independent Culture
To take what is essentially street theatre into the West End demands skill and gall in great quantities. The Reduced Shakespeare Company managed it with its bite-sized bard show, and the Flying Karamazov Brothers, whose new show Juggle and Hyde has just opened at the Criterion, carry it off brilliantly. Outside, buskers juggle among the pigeons; inside, the Karamazovs juggle amid the pink plush and gilded cornices.

But then the four Americans (they're not Russian, related or airborne) take juggling to a new level. Their skill is without question - they are so effortlessly good that even when they drop their clubs they get a round of applause - but what really attracts is their inspired rambling. They present juggling as a metaphor for life, splice their show with corny jokes, cod philosophy and audience participation, but do so with such a light touch and so much charm that they have the audience spellbound within minutes.

Some of the tricks have been in earlier shows - such as the Bach fugue played by juggling sticks off a xylophone - but they have lost none of their shine. And the high spot, when 'the Champ' juggles three objects offered by the audience, is still irresistible. On Monday he managed a lump of bread dough, a 'slinky' and a dead chicken (complete with head). A true example of fowl play.

The London New Play Festival acts as a valuable midwife to budding playwrights by offering short runs to one-act plays - a step up from a staged reading, without exposing the writer too soon to the glare of a full run. This year's festival kicked off at the Old Red Lion with two plays that deal with timely issues - society's outsiders, warped family relationships - though their styles differ radically.

In David Bridel's Shreds and Fancies, the tensions mount between a group of New Age travellers and the wealthy family on whose land they have camped. As the struggle to evict comes to a head, Bridel contrasts the travellers' way of life with the strained behaviour of the conventional landowners, and meditates on what constitutes a family. He weaves in complications in the shape of a daughter who is thick with the travellers and a prodigal son whose questionable identity and behaviour keep the plot moving along. He has the sense not to become didactic - life in the alternative camp is by no means rosy - and writes with vitality and satirical bite. It's an intelligent piece, well handled by the 13-strong cast. The dialogue sags in places, but that's a fault that can be overcome.

More ambitious but less coherent is Craig Baxter's St James and the Tattoo Man. On a wasteland (post-holocaust?) gather some lost characters: a rambling alcoholic, a blind girl, a mute boy and a baby. They make and break relationships in a sort of dark, erotic dance, springing from fantasy to fantasy and juggling cultural references. The writing is bold and sporadically inspired, but as it grows harder to keep abreast of the absurd logic, it also becomes hard to remain engaged.

'Juggle and Hyde' at the Criterion (071-839 4488); New Play Festival at the Old Red Lion (071-837 7816)

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