Theatre: On the Fringe

rur courtyard theatre, london spell binding union theatre, london
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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the most interesting aspects of Karel Capek's RUR, beyond the fact that it gave the world the word "robot", is that the all-conquering automatons the Czech playwright envisaged back in 1921 become increasingly indistinguishable from humans. This has undoubtedly helped ensure a long shelf-life. If RUR (Reason's Universal Robot) had predicted the global dominion of self-motivating vacuum-cleaners, say, or identikit tin-men, things might have turned out differently. As it is, the vision outlined is still the stuff of sci-fi (which these days, means far-sighted, rather than far-fetched), while the philosophical questions raised about identity are the gambits of Start the Week.

The play is old-fashioned only in the sense that it needs to be performed by people who can act. Alas, it is here that Mark Woolgar's production for the Courtyard Theatre hits its first stumbling block. Admittedly, Capek is immediately concerned with the dehumanising effects of industrialisation and ruthless capitalism ("robot" deriving from robotiti - to work), so flat, wooden delivery can bring out the satire. There's an amusing scene early on, for example, where Lady Helen Glory, the rights-for-robots activist visiting the sinister robot-manufacturing plant, gets her wires crossed, first imagining that the android women she sees are cowed housewives and then dismissing the male board members she meets as walking, talking replicants.

But muttered, stuttered lines, and blocking that has actors twisting all over John Bell's charming Vorticist set, kills any response that might be triggered by the play's emotive doom-and-gloom scenarios. One day, in the not-too-distant future, it is to be hoped that Peter Majer and Cathy Porter's accomplished translation of this fascinating play will get the treatment it deserves.

Alison Davis's "perverse fairytale", Spell Binding, has a surprisingly mechanical air to it - though that's not a criticism.

In outline, this hour-long show traces well-worn paths leading into the murky wood of sexual awakening. A queen has two children, Caspar and Hebe - the former a narcissistic, flawless youth, the latter dismissed by her mother as a "hideous little troll". As they grow up, Caspar (Alex Harcourt Smith) grows an off-putting phallus on his face and becomes an outcast, while Hebe (Deborah O'Malley) becomes a bookish troublemaker, struggling to cast off the binds of her gender (obedience, compassion, self-effacement, beauty and love).

Although Davis contrives a symmetry of experience, shoehorning brother and sister into a shared understanding of what it means to be human, she succinctly conveys the way that self-knowledge comes through an awareness of our social and biological conditioning. Emma Benson's brisk, witty production, which demands detailed physical mannerisms from her actors, coaxes something approaching personality from these adolescent bundles of nerves.

`RUR' (0171-833 0870) to 6 Dec; `Spell Binding' (0171-261 9876) to 5 Dec