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Theatre: On the Fringe

Take it to the Green Light Barry The Grace Theatre n Platterback Battersea Arts Centre n The Last Thrash Orange Tree
BRIAN IS the kind of man who salivates over Countdown, thinks vegetarians are a dangerous political minority and knows the answer to every quiz question apart from "what is post-modern irony?" His wife, Sandra, twitches obediently to his every whim, fussing over the colour of his underpants or the fillings in his sandwiches. We're in the obsessive world of dubious knitwear, suburban pedantry and an acrylic sense of humour: Sandra and Brian are daytime game-show contenders.

Vanessa Brooks' extraordinary Take it to the Green Light Barry sets the nerdish duo on the threshold of their ultimate ambition of taking part in the eponymous quiz show. At first it seems we're in for no more than caricatured observations on game-show geeks, as we watch Brian adjust his penis-line in the TV dressing-room mirror by stuffing tissues down his trousers, or listen to Sandra coax him with a celebratory corned beef sandwich after their successful first round.

Slowly, however, a more sinister element creeps in as Brian's anal criticisms of his wife become ever more vicious. The audience's amused and patronising perceptions of their plastic lifestyle is replaced by the horror of witnessing an abusive marriage; suddenly two-dimensional tokens of naffness are three- dimensional symbols of a tragedy.

The success of this low-budget production is due to the refusal of Michael Chance, as Brian, and Julia Russell, as Sandra, to ham up their characters for easy laughs. Even at his funniest, Chance is focusing on the poison inside Brian's character, while Russell is touchingly convincing as she trembles in fearful adoration. The sinister undertones are set for the shocking denouement, and it is a mark of the acting skill of both that, as the emotional pendulum shifts, the same absurd lines that made you laugh 10 minutes before, now make you gape in horror.

More wholesome forms of love are celebrated in a one-off performance, part of A Sharp Intake of Breath, a festival of innovative music theatre at BAC. Platterback uses an electric cello, an accordion, a piano and two singers to build the soundscape of a railway journey accompanied by the reminiscences of its passengers. It plays with noise as a master chef plays with ingredients, teasing rare and unexpected qualities out of each musical medium to serve up a dazzling display of sound.

Take, for instance, Stanley Adler on the electric cello. His flamboyant performance stretches common perceptions of the cello's identity, driving it through a range of scrunching train sound-effects, jaunty blues-style pizzicato, soulful undertones to the singers' voices, and beautifully executed virtuoso flourishes. Karen Street taps into the lyrical and surprisingly passionate qualities of the accordion, while Mike Westbrook, an eccentric panama-hatted presence at the piano, plays almost in a trance, totally at one with the music.

The singers are overtly there to create the narrative, but the evening is more about moods and sounds than about stories. John Winfield sings about love and yearning as if each note is torn from his soul, while Kate Westbrook sings in a low, throaty tremolo, moving easily from the pathos of the song "Love Letter from Stiltsville" to the satire of "Boiled Beef".

The hero of her song - a British ambassador - would probably be familiar with the prep-school terrain of David Cregan's new play The Last Thrash. This well-acted production does little to go beyond this cosy world with its stereotypes of masters writing love letters to boys, Churchillian headmasters and over-ambitious mothers. An audience still celebrating such values clearly loved it as theatrical comfort food. I suspect they are an endangered species.

Rachel Halliburton

`Take it to the Green Light Barry' (0171-794 0022) to 23 May; `A Sharp Intake of Breath' music/ theatre festival (0171-223 2223) to 15 May; `The Last Thrash' (0181-940 3633) to 5 Jun