Theatre: On the Fringe

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The Independent Culture
IF EVER A play encapsulated the art of making very little go a long, long way, it is Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi. The 15-year-old schoolboy's unrestrained experimentalism allowed him to aim beyond his original satirical target - an unpopular physics master - and poke fun at all those potentates who treat the world as their playground. Ubu caused a literary furore when it premiered in 1896, proved inspirational to surrealists, helped clear a path for absurdists, and has been frequently revived since. Not bad for a work structured round a childishly simple account of the rise and fall of a foul-mouthed slob, goaded on to snatch the Polish crown by his Lady Macbeth of a wife.

One of the chief virtues of Ubu Kunst - an excellent modern update by Luis Alberto Soto, directed by Dan Jemmett - is that it squares up to the play's insubstantiality with a bold minimalism. Instead of the puppets and descriptive placards the young playwright had in mind to conjure the vast array of two-dimensional characters (rulers and peasants, entire armies), Soto just offers himself as Ubu, Christine Entwisle as Ma Ubu and Gary Stevens as the rest of humanity.

Stevens, who plays mankind as a wonderfully timid bank clerk, is responsible for scene- and table-setting. He announces at the outset that cast numbers have dwindled as a result of cannibalism: "We apologise for this lapse in moral behaviour". He operates the curtain at the rear to reveal the nightmare couple, who inhabit a mini cabaret stage and, clad solely in red, are dressed to kill. He also manipulates various kitchen utensils to suggest the countless victims of Ubupolitik, smashing a whole stack of plates, or mashing a bowl of tomatoes into a bloody pulp.

These effects provide a neat counterpoint to the bawling idiolect Soto has concocted to update Jarry's, in which menace and mirth go hand in hand and individually crafted ruderies ("cunticles", "arse-bag", "arse- blabbing", "crap-cock") form a torrent of filth. If the sound of tyrants gets monotonous then maybe that's the point: this kind of inventiveness lacks real imagination. Not that Entwisle and Soto allow things to get dull. She has a huge repertoire of pouty poses to draw on; he continually interrupts his cockney blather with quick-fire impersonations (a snatch of Paisley, a spot of Connery). This Ubu doesn't shut up, but more disturbingly, he never stands up: he's the armchair fascist who can talk trouble into being.

Personals, at the New End, is another show that manages to spin a great deal out of very little raw material. Devised by the creators of Friends, David Crane and Marta Kauffman, together with Seth Friedman (who supplies music and lyrics), it weaves together numbers and sketches themed round the subject of lonely hearts. In many respects, the outcome is predictable: songs that defend the value of sticking it out on your own, express lonely yearning for that certain someone, and celebrate the dreams needed to survive both rejection and acceptance.

A book that avoids sentimentality and knowingness combined with assured- yet-unmanicured performances from the six-strong company make this a heartwarming rather than a stomach-churning experience. Director Dion McHugh never lets the pace slacken. There's an angsty Manhattan feel to it all (a general pattern of psychobabble intercut with kooky individual stories) and naturally enough, shades of Friends creep in - particularly in the hilarious Joey- like character, who struggles to learn etiquette from a tape that answers back. Lines like "I suddenly realise my mouth is open and I'm tasting feet" should raise a smile from even the most miserable singleton.

I'd have no hesitation recommending it to Rob, the main character in Geraint Cardy's Wasted, a man so haunted by the failure of a former relationship that he has locked himself into state of total apathy. Quite why his friends stick with him is anyone's guess, but it's too much to expect an audience to. In the sheer mundanity of Rob's existence, Cardy (who takes the monosyllabic lead) captures a flavour of London life at its loneliest. If he can put more energy into the script, some good may come of it. In the meantime, I'll take Manhattan.

`Ubu Kunst', Young Vic, London SE1 (0171-928 6363) to Sat; `Personals', New End, NW3 (0171-794 0022) to 11 Oct; `Wasted', NW1 (0171-482 4857) to Sun