Theatre: On the Fringe

The Cassilis Engagement Orange Tree, Richmond, Happenstance Chelsea Centre
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The Independent Culture
ROMANTICS, BE warned. Far from being a play in which love conquers all, The Cassilis Engagement depicts love tripping over at the first social hurdle and evaporating in a flurry of Shavian observations and Wildean witticisms. It is no surprise, given the black cynicism of his dialogue, that the playwright St John Hankin ended his life by tying weights round his neck and hurling himself into the river Ithon. Fiercely opposed to the tawdry sentimentality of 19th-century theatre, he delighted in depicting human nature at its worst and his incisive analysis of love and marriage sits well with the cynicism of Nineties audiences.

Nick Fletcher plays insipid Geoffrey Cassilis, a romantic blimp "head over ears" in love with a girl whose beauty is disfigured by her inferior class and a mother with the subtlety of a parrot. Like Machiavelli in petticoats, Geoffrey's mother plots against the union, feigning approval while ensuring that the fiancee is so bored with the family that she breaks off the engagement.

Tricia Kelly is formidable as the Countess, setting the tone with pronouncements such as: "Engagements are such terrible things... they sometimes end in marriage." You can almost see Jane Austen nodding approval to Karen Ascoe's scheming Mrs Cassilis, and Octavia Walters as Ethel is a poised, spirited anti-heroine. If this is setting the standard for future productions, it's a shame that funding problems will keep the venue closed from September to November.

While Hankin's verbal niceties conceal poisonous intentions, in Pete Lawson's Happenstance violent expressions of animosity eventually lead to love. In keeping with the forceful tone, the image of a comet ripping through the sky constantly recurs, symbolising a blazing eruption of hope to give brief relief to the despair.

Lisa, a white 15-year-old cockney dying of multiple sclerosis, is savagely defensive when Neesh, an Indian cockney of the same age, tries to befriend her. She spins an aggressive fantasy world around her to prevent intimacy - "I've got Aids", "Gotta have my leg off" - while herself suspecting that Neesh may be disguising deeper, less palatable truths.

Stephanie Pochin excels at portraying Lisa's aggressive vulnerability and Niki Mylonas's funny and touching Neesh rounds off a compelling double act, while Dilys Hamlett, as a "mad" old lady, is an enthralling, bird- like counterpart to them.

This play - in which fantasy is shown to be as potent a source of revelation as the truth - is further proof of Pete Lawson's immense talent. Both magical and savage, it smoulders in the mind for a long time afterwards.

`The Cassilis Engagement' (0181-940 3633), to 17 Jul; `Happenstance' (0171-352 1967), to 26 Jun