Theatre: On the Fringe

Stand Up old red lion n up against the wall tricycle theatre Low Flying Aircraft orange tree
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The Independent Culture
WHEN SO much hustling and tussling goes on in the dressing-room, it's surprising that performers and productions ever make it to the stage. It's more astonishing still when, going by the shambolic rehearsals for a blaxploitation musical depicted in Up Against the Wall and the bitchiness of a shabby comedy club in Stand-Up, life on the fringe is such a painful one.

Hopefully, Roy Smiles didn't extract his material from his experience as a comedian and compere when writing Stand-Up. Most of his characters are obnoxious egoists. The unhappy clown is a much-used motif, but Smiles doesn't settle for easy cliches; however bitter his comedians feel about their audiences, careers and lives off stage, it can't decrease the buzz they get from performing.

The gritty script is littered with recriminations, shocks and regrets. On one level, it simply compares the perilous ambition and heartlessness of the successful comedians Linda and Tony with the newcomer Debbie's naivete and the circuit regular Mal's combination of stoicism and defeatism. The fact that these people can put their real feelings aside, go on stage and make others laugh is as depressing as it is remarkable.

More impressively, Stand-Up is an emotive panegyric to the things people will do to survive. Harry, the club's gibbonish barman (a lithe Robert Murray), is reduced to unblocking excrement from the ladies' toilet because he needs a job. His incredulous remark that "I come from a shit hole, but you don't expect it to be a life sentence" resonates grimly.

Roy Marsden's sharp, engrossing production is beautifully acted by a cast who look at home, yet uncomfortable in Nina Garner's painstakingly designed, skanky dressing-room. There aren't many laughs but, when they come, they rattle with irony and gleam with poignancy. As Smiles's own mockney club owner might put it, this one's a corker.

Up Against the Wall at Kilburn's industrious Tricycle Theatre is heaps of fun but less dramatically successful. Felix Cross and Paulette Randall claim that drama isn't the point of their irreverent musical about putting on a musical; like the play within, it's simply an excuse for the actors to don Afros and flares and sing hits from the Seventies, which they do exceptionally well.

This would be more believable were the script less carefully contrived. There's no stinting on corniness as the lyrics to each song are made relevant to a character's life. The tone grows questionably moralistic when Clinton Blake's drunken director Courtenay bursts into his production wearing a preacher's gown and takes a spliff from the mouth of the bumptious actor Vincent, otherwise vibrantly performed by Mark McLean.

Thought-provoking moments are few but piquant, particularly Vincent's spine-tingling paean to Brixton, which shifts into a topical but gentle rap about police racism. If the crowd were so inclined, the night could develop into one rollicking party, but Black Theatre Co-operative's light- hearted production needs more meat to satisfy.

By contrast, Low Flying Aircraft, the second production from the Orange Tree's new company, is almost too serious in its endeavour to criticise modern life. In its formidable future, London is an annexe to Heathrow Airport, inhabited by disturbed people who control every waking moment with pills. Lianne and Cody's minimalist home, elegantly designed by Tim Meacock, is at once a haven from the planes that roar and flash overhead and a prison of fraught and misunderstood emotions.

Jane Coles's characters are intriguing and Jeremy Crutchley's dislikeable but riveting Cody holds an unsettling power over them all; his mind games with Sarah Tansey's irritating Tara bristle with tension in Dominic Hill's edgy production. But the surreal denouement is unconvincing and the chilly nature of the play doesn't encourage emotional engagement with the characters.

'Stand-Up' (0171-837 7816), to 17 Apr; 'Up Against the Wall' (0171-328 1000), to 17 Apr; 'Low Flying Aircraft' (0181-940 3633), in rep to 24 Apr