Theatre: On the Fringe

No EXP REQ'D Hampstead Theatre n Gamblers BAC n The Shaughraun Upstairs at the gatehouse
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ANDY IS a bully. He is also a racist, a misogynist and a potential rapist. Jules and Clarke, the teenagers who answer his ad for cartoonists in Simon Block's No Exp Req'd, don't know this. He promises them pounds 500 if they produce 100 drawings for a make-a-million business venture, and gives them a box of felt-tips. They think it's the opportunity of a lifetime. But Jay Simpson's volatile, venomous tyrant is a boss from Hell. On the first day, he demands "tough fucking toil"; by the end of the third, the cowed pair are locked in the office.

Block's study of office life is acerbic and rueful. It laments the bitter irony that youthful innocence is something to be put down to cynical experience. It allows the first-jobbers - played with wide-eyed verve by Kaye Wragg (The Lakes' Lucy Archer) and steady assurance by the young AJ (his real name) - the exhilaration of turning the tables; then they go too far and lose more than the moral upper hand. It despises the abuse of power, particularly when money and dreams are at stake. Block reiterates this through Marilyn, the put-upon PA, but should have had the ruthlessness to make her redundant, as her interventions only dissipate the energy whipped up elsewhere by Julie Anne Robinson's direction

In Gogol's Gamblers, there are further morals about the exploited amid card-sharping and double-dealing in 19th-century Russia. Iharev, an itinerant gambler, has a "telepathic" relationship with his beloved deck of cards and an unquenchable thirst for money. Arriving at a boarding-house, he sets up a game with the resident knaves: a dandy, a soldier and a pseudo- intellectual. With the cards dealt, the three hustlers know their game is up. If they can't beat him before their funds run out, then, well ... Iharev is persuaded to join them in pursuit of the 200,000-rouble purse of the local Mr Big. But there is a bigger sting in Gogol's tale.

Joe Spence's new, knowing version of this neglected comedy playfully employs literary borrowings and contemporary cliches to good effect and, on the straw-strewn BAC studio stage, Michael Palmer is especially commanding as the magnetic, wheedling schemer, Lyulyukov. He has the looks, oleaginous charm and beady eyed duplicity of Rik Mayall at his B'Stard best.

In Ovation Productions' The Shaughraun, Salvatore Sorce, as Corry Kinchela, is another convincing villain. The Sligo squire is responsible for the deportation of Fenian good guy Robert Ffolliott and the proposed eviction of his sister and fiancee from their ancestral pile, and Sorce plays the baddie with chilly composure. But a little more control in Sam Shammas's direction might have benefited the rest of the cast - and Boucicault's melodrama.

Written in 1874, this is one of the best of the Irish writer's vast body of plays. (In a St Patrick's week double whammy, the Abbey's acclaimed production of The Colleen Bawn opens at the National tomorrow). Renowned for its breathtaking set-pieces and its inventive sensationalism, it has tension, intrigue, romance and comedy, shootings, kidnappings, a jail breakout, a comedy wake, a wronged man, a loveable rogue, and a foolish stage Englishman. Upstairs at the Gatehouse, however, it's marred by breathless pacing and inevitable minimalism (the scene changes - drawing rooms, cliff-tops, caves and cells - amount to the shaky spotlighting of small paintings on the backdrop). Still, Tom Aaron's comic timing does justice to Conn, the heroic, incorrigible shaughraun, and Aisling Flitton is a fiery Claire Ffolliott. And the happy ending is unashamedly indulged. But then, here, it's never been in doubt.

`No Exp Req'd' (0171-722 9301), in rep to 25 Mar; `Gamblers' (0171-223 2223) to 28 Mar; `The Shaugh-raun' (0181-340 3488) to 1 Apr

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