Theatre: On the Fringe

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The Independent Culture
Catalpa Tricycle Theatre n Brave Smiles Drill Hall n Union of Shorts 2 Union Theatre

A MAN'S silhouette rises up and becomes a bird. It is the first of many teasing transformations over two hours of heroic adventure, Fenian political intrigue, and onomatopoeic sound-effects. A salt and pepper pot turn into first a telescope, then a judge's gavel; a manky green towel metamorphoses into a mewling baby; and the man himself - with a ravaged face and a haircut that would make Nicky Clarke wake screaming in the middle of the night - becomes Winona Ryder.

The man in question is Donal O'Kelly. Last time most people saw him he was the nervously self-effacing Bimbo in the film of Roddy Doyle's The Van, selling battered fish from an equally battered vehicle by the seaside. In this incarnation he roams way beyond the boundaries of Bimbo's persona, playing everything from Tom Cruise to an irate ghostly mother-in-law, as he narrates the historic expedition of the whaleship Catalpa in 1875. It's an important and emotional moment in Irish history, since the expedition also rescued six members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood - forerunners of the IRA - from imprisonment in Freemantle, Australia.

O'Kelly, who also wrote the piece, uses the conceit of a failed screenwriter trying to sell a film of the expedition to unimpressed Hollywood directors. But despite the Tinseltown jokes and underlying political tensions, his performance harks back to the more ancient traditions of oral culture with the Homeric scope and lyrical rhythmic style of his narrative. Set against the sea, the images he narrates start to flow in and out of each other: a sex scene fuses surprisingly beautifully with descriptions of the hump-back and sperm whales, while a dying mother whale becomes the shrouded ghost of his mother-in-law. Jim Daly's lighting provides a fine accompaniment, darkening suddenly for more introverted thoughts and memories, and producing dusky blues and burning reds to represent the mercurial moods of the sea.

If you're in the right frame of mind, this is a compelling and magical production: but when it drags, you feel a bit like the wedding-guest trapped by Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. Coleridge, as a dead white male, probably wouldn't be that familiar to the characters at the Tilue-Pussenheimer Academy, who look more towards Sappho for inspiration in their play about love, comic disaster, and death.

Imagine a sort of St Trinians a la lesbienne: five adult schoolgirls run around in tartan pinnies which barely make it below the knicker-line, using over-arched eyebrows and innocent expressions to give a performance which is totally tongue-in-cheek (their own, and each others' as often as possible). Welcome to the Lesbian Brothers' Brave Smiles ... Another Lesbian Tragedy.

The improbably named Dominique Dibbell shines, both as the dictatorial Frau von Pussenheimer, and as a more delicate Audrey Hepburn. She has not only funny bones, but funny muscles - twitching like a manic black crow as she delivers lines in a rapidly accelerating German accent. Dibbell holds together a production that is initially fun, but goes downhill in its second half, after leaving the T. Puss academy to trace the girls' progress in the world.

The problem is tone: the cast seems unable to decide whether to talk about sex in a purely Carry-On style or to give it a more serious edge, and the resulting mixture is confused and ultimately tedious.

Sex and confusion also bob to the surface several times in the Union Theatre's evening of seven short new plays. A milkman wrestles with hermeneutics, Coronation Street, and a seductive customer; a psychotic hairdresser invites an envied neighbour in for the chop; and a husband and wife turn monosyllabic exchange into an art form. Unfortunately most of these plays would only work for someone who thought sophistication and originality were alien philosophies. Hardly any of the playwrights navigate the fine line between making a dramatic point in 10 minutes and stating the crushingly obvious. The result is a criminal waste of acting talent and audience time. It is significant that the only play that works, Rattle Rattle by Jeannie van Rompaey, allows the action to develop from its psychotic hairdressing heroine, rather than imposing one-liners on stereotypes. You finish the evening wishing she had got her scissors on the other plays.

`Catalpa' (0171-328 1000) to 5 June; `Brave Smiles', (0171-637 8270) to 22 May; `Union of Shorts 2' (0171-261 9876) to 29 May

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