Theatre: On the Fringe

Menopausal Gentlemen Drill Hall, London n 400 Jokes With The Devil Lyric Studio, London
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The Independent Culture
FROM THE moment Peggy Shaw swaggers on to the stage in her pinstripe suit and eyes the audience up knowingly, you know you're in for one helluva show. The pose is a cross between James Dean and Marlon Brando, the identity is butch lesbian, and the subject is - well, what else could it be? - the menopause.

For the next three-quarters of an hour, Shaw talks, sings and growls her way through the physical battle that inside her body. This is vulnerability at its most macho: "There's a beast inside me," she snarls, "wearing out grooves on my floor." Shaw revels in the irony that for a woman who wears her masculinity not only on her sleeve, but also in the cut of her trousers, the menopause is not the first battle her body has had to fight. "I'm a 53-year-old woman who passes for a 35-year-old man," she shrugs. "It's a trade-off. I sacrifice being a woman for youth."

The setting is an almost empty, black stage. In place of props, Shaw furnishes her monologue with a rich, raw language that takes from songs ranging from "I'm a Man" to "My Way," and adds its own kind of poetry. For example, her knowingly absurd rendition of Nina Simone's "In the Dark" - in which first her scurrying feet and then her hands are highlighted from the pitch black by small torches winking out from her trouser-legs and sleeves - is followed later by a moving yet humorous account of the distilled terror that surges up on her in the small hours, when insomnia in the dark brings her face to face with her ageing process. "It's 4am - the hour of the wolf," she growls. The line is typical of the restless "in-your-face" energy that powers the show, aggressively making the audience laugh at the same time as it wakes it up to intimate moments of her desolation.

Shaw's masterly manipulation of stage space cuts a sharp contrast with the cluttered set of 400 Jokes With the Devil. The set is a partial warning for what follows: an over-ambitious attempt to document the controversial travels of the Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein though Mexico in 1929.

In this production the devil is in the detail. The play drags while the plot laboriously spells out every hitch and tantrum Eisenstein went through while making his (unfinished) lyrical and haunting representation of Mexican life and its rituals in Que Viva Mexico. It is perhaps inevitable in a play that documents a love affair with film that the stage comes off the worse of the two media. In a single shot, Eisenstein's portrayals of, say, a peasant at a temple or a cactus at the roadside convey more in a few seconds about his thought processes and experiences of Mexico than this play can in more than two hours.

This said, there are redeeming elements. The music is excellent, and the cast gives a nuanced and sensitive performance of Ben Livingstone's arrangements of both Russian and Mexican songs. Hannah Young stands out from the cast as a versatile performer. But she, rather like Eisenstein's films, is perhaps better seen in another context.

'Menopausal Gentleman', to 17 Apr, 0171-637 8270; '400 Jokes with the Devil', to 17 Apr, 0181-741 8701