Theatre: On The Fringe

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IT TAKES a certain intrepidity to call a show Sell Out. As a description of the youthful Frantic Assembly's latest offering, the title is a trifle misleading: Michael Wynne's play exposes the slip-knot bond of four twentysomething friends who, it emerges, are too faithless to have ever really bought into anything. As a forecast of the works reception on tour, though, it has proved uncannily accurate. To have had to add an extra date to their recent British Festival of Visual Theatre run looks like good fortune. To have packed out the Bull Theatre in Barnet with teens on a wet Friday night - as they did last week - looks nothing short of miraculous. If they can command this kind of attention at the end of the Northern Line, who knows what business they could drum-up in the centre of London.

It's not hard to fathom the appeal. Frantic - who have been operating since 1992 - continue to make an acting area as sexy as a dancefloor: Force 10 techno sounds come crashing in at every available opportunity; in the programme, a scrap of notepaper with a scrawled playlist of scenes ("love stairs", "secrets", "sizequeen" etc) spells death to stuffy three- acters. The cast of four - in roles that steal their own christian names - display an agility normally reserved for steroid enhanced Russian gymnasts. In skimpy tops and the usual club rig-out, Cait Davies, Scott Graham, Steven Hoggett and Ansty Thomas leap into each other's arms, dash each other to the ground and find countless ways of draping themselves off two moveable steel structures: a set of easily tipped up steps and what looks like a cross-sectioned WC. When they open their mouths to speak they sound so unfazed they might have been just boiling the kettle.

But it's what they say that counts. The super fit expressionism (choreographed by T C Howard) runs parallel to the bruising attitudes that surface after the opening scene, in which a euphoric Stephen celebrates his birthday with girlfriend Kate and two best mates. In the cold, clear light of reflection, it dawns on him that everyone knew what was coming: Scott was a furtive rival while Ansti's gift, a self-help book, quietly declared her unthinking support for Kate's cynical refusal to commit. Wynne sketches the emotional trench warfare that ensues with devastating economy. The wounding remarks can be transparently juvenile ("I really think the scabies brought us together, at least we had something in common when we had them"), but that's what gives Sell Out its integrity. Imagine a hormonally raging prequel to Closer, or Pinter's Betrayal with added beats per minute.

The physical skills deployed in the Scarlet Theatre company's Stranded are more subtly expressive than Frantic's bicep-breaking contortions. But then, they have to be. Katarzyna Deszcz has chosen a simple, if vivid, storyline, based on the Italian judge and playwright Ugo Betti's Crime on Goat Island, about a thick-skinned stranger who invites himself into a remote house occupied by three women claiming to have befriended Agatha, the head of the household's husband before he died in a prison-of-war camp. It's the awkward silences, the mutual sizing up, rather than the terse dialogue that grips, though, as allegiances shift bringing ill-tempered rifts. As the matriarch's sister-in-law and daughter, Jane Guernier and Sarah-Theresa Belcher provide strong support, rich in scatty detail, but it is Linda Kerr-Scott's abandoned widow Agatha who supplies the piece's tragicomic cores: her rapid neck movements suggest a startled farmyard goose, her pursed lips and severe eyes an eternity of strife between the sexes.

`Stranded', Young Vic, London SE1, to 21 Nov. `Sell Out', 13 Nov UEA, Norwich; 17 Nov, Theatre Studio, Scarborough and touring until March 1999

Dominic Cavendish