YOU KNOW that the central character of Switchboard is mad a long time before he turns round and tells the skeleton to "Stop being so frisky or I'll unwire your pelvis". Colin, a hospital telephonist, has spent most of the play wandering haphazardly along the fragile borderline between eccentricity and psychosis, discussing theories of reincarnation, peering through binoculars at nurses in the nursing-home, and turning to custard creams for comfort.
The playwright Peter Hamilton skilfully exploits laughter as the best way of realising the boundary between quirkiness and insanity, his language teetering between purple prose and the shockingly absurd. One second you're convulsed with mirth, the next the laugh sticks in your throat as a tremor of horror slips down your spine.
The play is based on a case from the Fifties where a hospital telephonist sedated and raped a young hospital porter. Terence Hillyer, as Colin, sustains the dark humour necessary for playing a man who goes from being jokingly dismissed by his colleagues to being a genuine destructive threat to those around him. On Jaimie Todd's versatile and effective set, the cast capture the atmosphere of the institutions in his life. Jean Boht is an appropriately caustic hospital sister, while Peter Bramhill is dynamic as Steve, fresh out of college, switching between naivety and being patronising as he negotiates the world.
Mike Friend's production of The Bedsit also takes on harsher resonances as a result of real-life events. Although the play was first performed in 1996, the fatal stabbing of Eamon Collins in January of this year as he tried to rebuild his life outside the Provos is a savage reminder of its extreme relevance.
James Ellis plays former IRA terrorist Brady, whose desire to live a quiet life is challenged when two hostile young bloods turn up on his doorstep. The play taps into the martyr-based iconography of passionate young freedom fighters, with the performance of songs celebrating dead Republican heroes. The cast skilfully creates an atmosphere of poisoned fear, emphasising how the perceived betrayal of a terrorist organisation can condemn an individual to eternal damnation within his own lifetime. The surprise ending is a chilling reminder that a life of violence can never entirely be abandoned.
A rather more relaxing evening can be enjoyed at Primitive Science's engrossing Icarus Falling. Imagine being thrust into the middle of an early Peter Greenaway film and you're on the way. The production plays with different modes of illusion: an art historian lecturing respectably on Bruegel the Elder's painting of Icarus reveals himself to be a forger. Then the screen goes back, and against a Nymanesque score, characters step in and out of the shadows to present their elliptical interpretation of the myth.
In this dilapidated warehouse space next to the Oxo tower, Icarus Falling's secret lies in scenes of intense visual beauty. A poised swimmer sends water reflections rippling up the wall: a young boy is silhouetted as he nervously manipulates his model wings. The tone is meditative, but is often offset by visual and verbal ironic humour. A deeply addictive evening.
`Switchboard' (0171-794 0022), to 4 July; `The Bedsit' (0171-223 2223), to 13 June; `Icarus Falling' (0171-739 0990), to 19 JuneReuse content