Theatre: On The Fringe

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The Independent Culture
Just when Conor McPherson's The Weir seemed to be the last word in pub theatre, along comes Jack Shepherd's mightily impressive Half Moon at the Southwark Playhouse. Although boasting a more densely populated catchment area than McPherson's Leitrim watering hole, this Fitzrovia boozer is equally forlorn and its clientele just as haunted, though they are in the grip of ideological debate rather than ghost stories.

The play is set in 1982; Simon Doe's wonderful replica saloon instantly suggests a world apart. The day's news - the opening engagements of the Falklands War - steals in by word of mouth, gradually proving a bone of contention between the raddled bohemians who gather following the funeral of their modernist painter chum, Quentin.

Shepherd's dialogue transforms the casual skirmishes of bar-room banter into a complex war of words punctuated by ugly brawls. He captures, with comic brio, the mutual antipathies of washed-up contemporaries Eric and Ray who unleash torrents of impertinence under the combined influence of age and alcohol - but who then find themselves holding uneasy truces when their lifestyle is challenged by a rebarbative Glaswegian and a young artist, Nick.

The latter's pugnacious defence of the war against Argentina is bound up with his contempt for the high-mindedness he ascribes to old-guard creative types. His retort, "fuck principles", to the pacifist Eric rings out like a proclamation on behalf of Thatcherite Britain but Shepherd, who directs, never allows our sympathies to rest with any one party for long.

Jackie Everett is a magnificently sozzled Elvira (a sort of boho Dot Cotton), Ralph Watson's Ray resembles a Peter Cook might-have-been and Liam Hourican makes a forceful debut as the outgunned Nick.

The fringe also offers two wildly different, but worthwhile new works. Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and a Funeral, Tamasha's music-filled adaptation of a Bollywood blockbuster, is so exaggeratedly faithful, it allows a tongue-in-cheek secondary reading which meshes neatly with the story's latent critique of arranged marriages. At the ICA every weekend this month, Julian Maynard Smith and Susannah Hart of Station House Opera are performing their brilliant Roadmetal, Sweetbread. Mimed exchanges are wittily counterpointed by video-projected alter-egos as they examine the constraints of coupledom from every angle in one hour. It looks viciously modern, but the subtext is reassuringly old hat: all's fair in love and war.

`Half Moon', Southwark Playhouse, SE1 (0171-620 3494) to 5 Dec; Tamasha, Lyric Studio, W6 (0181-741 8701) to 5 Dec; `Roadmetal, Sweetbread', ICA, SW1 (0171-930 3647)

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