THEATRE / Rave from the grave: Excess XS Contact, Manchester

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The Independent Culture
IT'S usually Christmas when the reviewer traditionally feels the generation gap and draws upon the services of an Expert Consultant (aged 6 1/2 ). Although it's only September, Kevin Fegan's new play promises to plunge deep into House music, the dance culture, Ecstasy and the whole Madchester scene - a formidable proposition to a scribe who went to see Rock Around the Clock with his mother.

So I take along the Expert Consultant (now 22 and a DJ). Kev's pretty cred, according to the Expert Consultant. Yes, DJ Steve Moran, up there in his booth at the back of the stage, has got some wicked sounds, a bit too Rave-oriented for the EC's taste (at 22, he's getting on), but his handling of the turntables and the levels (sound, Ian Bowker) is as sharp as this quick-changing script demands. Fegan has an ear as well - they do talk about 'necking' Ecstasy down on Whitworth Street, and the six kids who live for their weekend of E's and dancing are 'well observed', as I might have said myself.

Except, even to the unglazed eye, there really ought to be more people. The first part of the show is virtually one long number which aims to give the sound and feel of this world where 'the beat of the heart is a drum'. But the actors work incredibly hard to produce the illusion of a dancing weekend. There is, for instance, an excellent sequence where, as the music reaches its highest pitch, the police, shown as one bright swinging flashlight, break up an illegal Rave and the kids scatter.

Only in the second half does a partial narrative emerge. Most of the action consists of illustrative sketches, often funny (such as a druggie's trip to the supermarket) but sometimes flat (like a cursorily obvious football scene). In the course of these sketches we meet all the cast of parents, bouncers, teachers, policemen, dealers, and 'snarlers' from Manchester's notorious gangs.

Fegan also has three didactic strands to pursue: a consideration of recreational drug-use, 'the need to party', and the impeccably entrepreneurial character of drug-dealing. There is a fine extended scene in which a heroin addict/dealer (the excellent Kulvindir Ghir) unfolds a spreadsheet of his business plan. But there are too many scenes which lack this sharpness, and Fegan's powerful and convincing celebration of the scene suffers rhetorical heatstroke. He certainly necks too many similes for his writing to stay healthy.

So not everything connects, but this is still a sparky, go-for-it production, kept moving at a brisk pace by Gregory Nash and put together very neatly by the directors, Brigid Larmour and Richard Gregory. And Chris Brockhouse's pulsating, kaleidoscopic lighting is a revelation. All in all, it's miles better than Rock Around the Clock.

To 17 Oct. Box-office: 061-274 4400/4747

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