Theatre: On the Fringe

Und Riverside Studios Ay Carmela Riverside Studios High Life The Bush
THE SMASHING of windows in the background cuts a stark contrast with the quiet containment of the woman standing on stage in her white plastic ball-dress. The more you observe her, the more you are aware of the hysteria in her poise. She enunciates worries about how hot the tea is or whether she should lick an envelope as if her life depended on it. Outside a man is ringing the doorbell, and suddenly - amid her flurried worries about etiquette - you realise he has come to kill her.

The controversial Howard Barker has hit the theatrical world again with a play that delves below the polished facade of a Jewish woman, Und, as she awaits the man who is going to arrest her and imprison her in a camp. She knows she can't keep him out for ever, but prolongs her last minutes of freedom by reciting banal details of her aristocratic life as if they were a spell to assert power over her doom. "Is this fractional lateness merely the first instalment of a significant lateness?" she asks, listening for the first fatal ring at the door. "Cold tea alone ... I prefer it," she confides, slipping into the solipsistic absurdity that heralds the disintegration of her world.

Tomas Leipzig's sinister and arresting set design dominates this Wrestling School production. A minimalist metallic frame suspends a row of trays, bearing household objects, tea-sets, even letter-writing accessories, which drop and sway pendulum-like as Und examines them during the play. Melanie Jessop delivers Barker's characteristic rhetoric with a crystalline musical precision, simultaneously attacking and appealing to the audience. There is a desperate and deeply moving aspect to her attempts to resist a brutal death through values that become more manifestly hollow and decadent the more passionately she clings to them.

Heightened Reality's production of Ay Carmela also deals with violent political oppression, but does not manage to carry it off with such thought- provoking style. Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, it follows two Republican sympathisers and vaudeville performers, Paulino and Carmela, who stumbled across the front-line into fascist territory.

David Johnston has adapted a script that has been performed all over Europe and filmed in 1990 by Carlos Saura but his reduction of the military threat and sense of insidious terror that made the film so atmospheric and engaging, makes the result leaden and lumpy. The actors fail to capitalise on the intimate atmosphere of the space, and shout so much you sometimes feel bludgeoned by the dialogue. Even Eva Eklof's spirited portrayal of the sexually forward, politically passionate Carmela cannot save the evening.

You have the feeling the Canadian Lee MacDougall's first play High Life would also look better on celluloid, but even on stage its powerful cast ensures this portrayal of a morphine-inspired bank-robbery hits where it hurts. The plot creaks as much as the substance-abused bodies of its characters, but the production's energy carries off this hold-up that ends up more of a cock-up.

David Schofield is a dynamic force as Dick the fast-talking ex-jailbird, and Paul Barber encapsulates the explosive violence of Bud, the seasoned psychotic who reaches for gun or knife, when conversation gets awkward. Nigel Planer grabs the laughs as Donny the hypochondriac pining for a fully functioning kidney, but Joe Mackay proves the unfortunate weak link in the chain. This is theatre for Tarantino fans: fast, hard and fun. Look forward to the film.

`Und', (0181-237 1111) to 26 Jun; `Ay Carmela' (0181-237 1111) to 27 Jun, `High Life' (0181-743 3388) to 10 July