Theatre: On the Fringe

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spring awakening jermyn street n the glass ceiling battersea arts centre n and the brother too... tricycle theatre

EDWARD BOND has said that Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening, first published in 1891, "becomes more relevant as our armies get stronger, our schools, prisons, and bombs bigger".

Theatre 28's production at the Jermyn Street Theatre, which uses Bond's fine translation, puts a strong case for this grandiose claim without recourse to any contemporary gloss on Wedekind's vision of a suffocating social order.

There is no coyness about the scenes of teenage masturbation, rape and homosexual love that got the play banned in England until 1965, and much censored elsewhere. But nor, crucially, is there embarrassment about inhabiting the comically starchy mannerisms of a bygone age, almost quaint in its wilful ignorance. The play's enduring power lies in the fact that, though the 20th century may have brought a greater degree of sexual liberation, taboos continue to surround puberty, sowing the seeds of dysfunction and neurosis.

It's no easier than it ever was for trained actors to play pre-school- leavers yet the cast fares admirably under Stephen Henry's direction. Louise Doherty occasionally allows an overly shrill tone to take hold of Wendla, the innocent whose enforced impregnation and subsequent abortion pill result in her death, but her scenes with the too-curious Melchior (Dean Verbeck), prior to his assault on her, convey a wide-eyed lust for life that looks wholly authentic.

Ian Bass shines as Mortiz, the boy whose fragility and perspicacity will result in suicide. Not for this character the retreat into monosyllabic shyness; prone to lyrical outbursts, he memorably compares the alarm he feels at his sexual awakening to that of an "owl flying through a burning wood".

You might expect a play called The Glass Ceiling to deal with the issue of female career advancement in male-dominated workforces, but Richard Davidson utilises this commonplace image for far less prosaic ends. The ceiling in question is part of a customised greenhouse in darkest Lancashire in which a fading romantic novelist called Aldous (Chris MacDonnell) sits recovering from a heart attack, waiting for inspiration and peering through a telescope at the heavens or at copulating geriatric neighbours. His brooding person is tended like a sick plant by his partner, Rebecca; but when his larky layabout son, Gabriel, brings a new girlfriend, Sally, to stay, Aldous is roused to confront the past that binds them all together and which finally tears them apart.

Davidson supplies details with the assurance of a fireside storyteller but it is not so much the progress towards a denouement that grips, as the enveloping mood of disquiet. Wry, evasive exchanges are conducted within Christopher Oram's strikingly simple, steel-framed set. Shadows form in the green half-light. The director, Angus Jackson, has picked four actors who can suggest souring, withheld emotion at the bat of an eyelid. Moments of release are few and far between, but when they come, as when Sally and Gabriel silently offer their faces up to an invisible downpour, the effect is at once highly theatrical and discreetly life- affirming.

Eamon Morrissey's And the Brother Too... is a gentle monologue based on the writings of the Irish comic novelist Flann O'Brien. The follow-up to Morrissey's well-travelled The Brother (1974), it's a droll sharing of thoughts - some astute, some humdrum - on everything from the perils of idleness and alcohol to the riddles of time and identity.

The play includes the much-loved theory from The Third Policeman - that a transfer of atoms between bicycles and their owners causes each to acquire a percentage of the other's personality.

Morrissey has a delivery as rich as stout, but his generosity with O'Brien's material requires you to stay glued to your Tricycle seat so long, you risk becoming part of the furniture.

`Spring Awakening" Jermyn Street, London, SW1 (0171-287 2875) to 6 March; `The Glass Ceiling' Battersea Arts Centre, London, SW11 (0171-223 2223) to 6 March; `And the Brother Too...', Tricycle Theatre, London NW6 (0171- 328 1000) to 27 February