Theatre: On The Fringe

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IT'S NOT hard to see why Primitive Science was commissioned to provide one of the curtain-raisers for the 1998 British Festival of Visual Theatre. During the company's brief, unfunded life, which almost came to an end last October, it has acquired a loyal following and a reputation for a visually emphatic, intelligent brand of devised work.

It also knows how to be youthfully irreverent: the programmes for last year's Hunger were customised tins of tomatoes. Last week, at the Purcell Room, audiences for Half Machine were presented with toy water-pistols.

Unfortunately, that gimmick may have been the only thing they took away from this obscure piece.

A sufi aphorism in the programme warns that, "The secret protects itself, it is found only in the spirit and the practice of the work." Judging by the mutterings afterwards, though, that spirit was elusive.

On stage, there was much to enchant: in the first half, a grey-suited man (Patrick Driver) wandered round a sparse domestic interior furnished with four identical standard-lamps. Unlikely items were produced - a goldfish bowl, a set of scales, a blackboard - and pondered at length. He broke into a mournful rendition of "These Are a Few of My Favourite Things". A dance instructor appeared, and they performed a few synchronised steps. On either side, a pianist and trumpet-player contributed a live, jittery soundtrack.

But it was the commentary provided by another actor off-stage that demanded most of our attention. Delivered in a deadpan monotone, it articulated the recluse's preoccupation with silence.

But the speechifying, particularly in the portentous, static second half, during which a naked man emerged from a heap of corpses in an ornamental garden, and slowly ransacked them, seemed calculated to annoy - did so much need to be said to describe isolation? "My story, as stories go, lacks variety. No one ever goes anywhere or does anything," ran the commentary, a line rather too Beckett-conscious.

At least, though, the cast-members knew how to deliver tonelessness on tap. The main problem with Joe Harmston's production of Beckett's rarely performed, exquisite three-hander Play, at Riverside Studios, is that his actors - particularly James Simmons' adulterous M - inject far too much intonation into what should be an uninflected text.

Tongues will continue to wag for quite a while, too, at the decision to tack on Duma Ndlovu's The Ritual - an amateur, if heartfelt, attempt at self-help for post-Apartheid South Africa. A double-bill suitable only for people with multiple personalities.

The British Festival of Visual Theatre, to 27 October at the Young Vic, BAC and South Bank Centre (0171-223 2223); `Play/The Ritual', Riverside Studios (0181-237 1111) to 11 October