Theatre: On the Fringe

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Between Love and Passion New End n Life during Wartime Lyric Studio n Towering Inferno Greenwich Festival

F SCOTT FITZGERALD wrote that the Jazz Age died in 1929. He had been one of many Americans who thrived on the atmosphere of nervous energy, heated excess, and hedonism teetering into hysteria which ended with a crash on Wall Street. In both his short stories and his novels, love reflected the shifting times: so ephemeral that it could drift away on a dying jazz melody, or so tragic that it would eventually drive men to their late- night glasses of whisky.

With such ingredients, surely it was only a matter of time before somebody realised that his writing was ripe for being turned into a musical.

Unfortunately, the London Musicals Company's Between Love and Passion does not capitalise on this wealth of material. The musical is based on the short story "The Beautiful and the Damned", and tells of the rocky love affair between "brilliant" young composer Teddy Van Beck and society beauty Helen Catos. Although the story is set in the years prior to the First World War, it reflects the spirit of 1929: Helen's husband (who is of course not Teddy) loses all his wealth on Wall Street, and tries to recapture his money so he and his wife can rejoin the decadent society partying on without them. Cue uninspired music, unimaginative lyrics, and a series of performances that do nothing but remind us that the Jazz Age is well and truly dead.

It is interesting to set a musical on such a tiny stage as the New End Theatre's, but this production makes the mistake of trying to copy its large-scale antecedents and looks as ridiculous as a mouse imitating an elephant. There might only be a piano and a cello to replace the band, but the full chorus line-up at the start and finish simply emphasises how inadequate the space is.

The elegiac melancholy that filters through Scott Fitzgerald's prose is not there, for the cast has interpreted it as a leaden unhappiness and frustration that bores rather than entrances. Even the music cannot make up for such deficiencies, since it does not achieve the haunted longing that was, for instance, caught so poignantly by Richard Rodney Bennett's theme tune to the 1980s TV version of Tender is the Night.

However, the catalogue of disasters that beset the romantic couple would probably be useful fodder for the security systems salesman heading the eccentric cast of Life During Wartime. "It's a hazardous world, a cruel world," he pronounces with glee as he demonstrates how to sell over-priced burglar alarms. "You don't have to sell fear, fear sells itself."

By the time John Calvin bursts onto the stage and starts berating the audience with his theories of original sin, you are already aware that this black comedy is taking you down alleys where you wouldn't feel comfortable late at night. The premise that - even in affluent neighbourhoods - we are all waiting for violence to rip into our lives is turned into a starkly cynical portrait of what makes people tick.

An uneven cast creates an evening that oscillates between hard-hitting humour and flimsy satire. On a stylish set, which switches between customers' living rooms and the security firm's various meeting-places with a salesman- like smoothness, we see John Sharian, as Heinrich, hammering home his philosophy of fear. Sharian is the dynamo in this production, a Mafia- style mentor to the nervous Tommy, and cynical overseer of Tommy's fated seduction by his first sales client. John Calvin's beard deserves as many accolades as the actor attached to it - Craig Pinder - who provides a spirited rant about everything from 16th-century theories of predestination to Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.

A similarly wide world view was presented by Towering Inferno during the Greenwich Festival. In the company's latest multi-sensory display we reclined beneath five cinema screens towering above, tuning out to ambient music accompanying images of the 20th century representing various attempts to conquer the world.

This exciting formula worked for the first three quarters of the performance, though ultimately the lack of direction defied the attention span. Overall, though, it was worth it just to feel the gut-grabbing awe at images of Stalinist political rallies, or to relive humans' attempts to conquer space.

`Between Love and Passion', (0171-794 0022), to 5 Aug; `Life During Wartime' (0181-741 2311) to 7 Aug