Theatre On the Fringe: The Lost Child On tour n Fourplay Lyric Studio

JUDGED BY its intentions alone, The Lost Child would be declared a must-see. The second in a trilogy of the same name by the David Glass Ensemble, it has grown out of the company's work with street children around the world.

Thousands were shown The Hansel Gretel Machine, which explored instances of abandonment through a mime version of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, and their own answering experiences have contributed to the textless sequel.

Glass and his team - four actors, two designers and composer Jonathan Cooper - have fashioned a black-and-white "series of dream pictures" which are as redolent of Luis Bunuel as the acknowledged inspiration, Lewis Carroll. They are accompanied by a sound-track that bombards the car with drum-rolled gunfire, sampled gurgles, mournful loops of piano and a legion of occidental-oriental effects. But the non-specificity of The Lost Child gives rise to unease and confusion: images of brutalised or vulnerable youngsters are put to a metaphorical use which, while never entirely clear, seems to put the loss of innocence that comes with adulthood on a par with the traumas children can suffer at the hands of adults.

The piece takes the form of a quest conducted in and around a small proscenium theatre. A pregnant woman (Gretel) goes through a looking-glass in search of both her mirror-self and a man who beckoned her (Hansel). Her unborn baby is removed by a white-faced baldie with rabbit ears and a bandage- masked sidekick in a trench-coat and bowler hat. As creepy as the kiddycatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, this sinister duo tyrannise the children who live beneath the stage where they spend much time committing solvent abuse or blowing up polythene dolls, depending on how you look at it. You can't fault Glass's inventiveness - there are some striking coups de theatre with masks and fairy-lights - but, repeated in combinations that defy decoding, they leave the audience stranded. So much emphasis is placed on structure that it ends up looking hollow.

In Sergi Belbel's interestingly flawed anti-farce Fourplay, directed by Hans-Peter Kellner, an elaborate formalism is deployed to point up an inner emptiness.

In 38 brief, cut-up scenes, punctuated by cheesy incidental music, we are teased about what goes on when a sexless married couple bring two friends (male and female) together, with the bizarre motive of inaugurating their new bed. How much "action" takes place is thrown into question when suggestive scenes are repeated with more context: what might have been a lesbian embrace proves to be a slip-up on a pool of vomit; the smell of sex becomes the odour of tobacco puffed by Belbel's miserable quartet. The Catalan playwright has been compared with Pedro Almodovar, but the neurosis on display here is skin-deep, used to make points about consumerism and entertainment that would have been better served with less contrivance.

`The Lost Child', Birmingham Mac, Fri/Sat, (0121-440-3838) then tours; `Fourplay', Lyric Hammersmith (0181-741 8701) to 20 Feb

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