Theatre: On The Fringe

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The Independent Culture
SEVEN ADULTS crouch down, childlike, playing with the controls of the seven record players ranged in front of them as if they were machines from an amusement arcade. An anarchic jumble of sound - seeming to feed from a chaos of distorted imaginations - churns up into the audience accompanied by giggles.

Despite the characters' glee, it is obvious the records herald the start of a vicious cycle that will both confound and disturb.

Dennis Potter once wrote: "Childhood is the adult world writ large, not small." And the British/ East-Asian Yellow Earth Theatre Company's production of Blue Remembered Hills succeeds brilliantly in conveying the fear, aggression, and playful interaction that are eventually honed into adulthood.

The adult cast's body-language is convincingly stripped of all confining sophistication as it builds the construct of games and fantasies that eventually proves to be a monster.

Blue Remembered Hills famously examines children's innocent obsessions with death, destruction, and fear, as they play in a deceptively pastoral Garden of Eden setting - graffitied with corruption from the outset.

Director David Glass has decided to replace the natural setting with seven mattresses, which, as well as evoking mixed memories of sleep, love, and abuse, demonstrates the wild-running imagination of the children as they mould them into the sequence of buildings, acrobatic platforms, and woodland scenes which prelude the tragic finale.

Blue Remembered Hills has been compared to Lord of the Flies, but this is to misunderstand how aggression erupts unjudgmentally as part of the children's fantasy, rather than being part of a calculated - but instinct- based - act of malice.

Aggression also rears its head in Chris O'Connell's Car, which stormed Edinburgh this year with its screeching high-speed rendition of the chaotic world that four car thieves inhabit.

Jack Straw announced this week that he wanted more offenders to confront their victims because it reduced recidivism - but he forgot to mention that it also makes for very good theatre.

The play controversially shows how the desire for revenge on a criminal could stir up the same kind of mental chaos and violent instinct that provoked the crime in the first place, and the central scene - where one of the boys who has stolen the car and the car owner are brought together in a mediation session - demonstrates either one could be the thug.

O'Connell uses rhythm ruthlessly, interspersing passages of high-speed dialogue with bursts of techno-music to convey the restless agitation of the boys' mentality.

Stephen Banks, as Gary the car owner, provides a strong balance as he blasts frustrated monologues at the audience, rehearsing the "Englishman's car is his castle" routine to no avail.

The mediation scene, by contrast, provides an oasis of understated initial calm - and Richard J Fletcher as Nick - with Michael Brogan as Robert, his probation officer - skilfully manoeuvre their way through the ironies and comic exchanges unmasking the tragedies in the rest of the play. It is theatre that jolts you into a stark but vigorously entertaining side of life.

Any visiting Martian would think it comes from a totally different planet to Doon (Smack the Pony) MacKichan's adaptation of Emma. Dora Schweitzer's backdrop consists of a map like an embroidered quilt, depicting a world of picturesque scenes and cosy corners.

But classical music soon fuses into a rap-beat, as the cast presents itself Spice Girls-style. This is girl-power in Austen's England, and it is clear it's not going to take long for the assorted bachelors and clergymen to find out what the Austen babes really, really want.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, MacKichan's play is like an extended Smack The Pony television sketch, and bears the same infectious subtext - giggle or be damned. A high titter-factor derives from the fact that Mr Knightley is played by a woman.

But despite fine comic performances, the play's impression evaporates almost the second you leave the theatre. It's fun, but nothing to get Jane Austen boogie-ing in her grave.`Blue Remembered Hills', 0181-341 4421 to 2 Oct; `Car', 0171- 609 1800 to 16 Oct, `Emma', 0171-328 1000 to 30 Oct