Theatre: Review: The write stuff

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BBC EXECUTIVES going down for the third time in a sea of criticism about poor sitcoms should follow the advice: "Go West, young man." With its national writing programme Ticket to Write, Paines Plough theatre company has struck a rich seam of talent.

Western Front showcases 15-minute comedies by 10 writers unearthed by Ticket to Write in the West. As with all gold-panning expeditions, there's some silt in the sieve, but there sure are also nuggets of genuine yellow stuff a-glistenin' there as well.

Richard Davidson's Grey Matter is a surreal, post-Python farce. The plot is intangible, but the laughs aren't, and Davidson is a star, with a fertile imagination and top-of-the-range one-liners.

Grey Matter shares its local setting with Adrian Sellar's Beaches and Cream, about two Bristolian lads desperately trying to act out the Ibiza holiday of a lifetime on the muddy, rainswept breaches of Weston-Super- Mare, a touching, finely crafted tale of male inadequacy.

Kerry Hood's Paj and Pompetry, on the other hand, is far from downbeat, rampaging far past surrealism into total madness. Taking the concept of European institutions rather literally, it depicts the psychiatric treatment meted out to a romantic novelist and a football hooligan in order to eradicate the last vestiges of Englishness in favour of EU homogeneity. The piece is more like a Eurosceptic's bad trip than a play, but the parade of lunatic snapshots offers a chance for an English audience to revel in their outstanding ability to laugh at themselves.

The outstanding "find" of the evening, however, is Toby Farrow. We all know that adults can often act like children, but Farrow's playlet Social Grooming is based on children talking about their nursery romances like adults. So three-year-old Liam repeatedly demands of his girlfriend "But are you happy?", and doesn't want to hear about the boyfriends she had before him. Farrow either has a preternatural ability to write naturalistic dialogue, or a large collection of tape-recorders and a bad bugging habit. The onlooker is left teetering between hysterical laughter and exquisite emotional pain.

Western Front proves that there are highly talented comedy writers in the provinces - as well as four actors who can deliver a variety of comic styles and differentiated characters. Now Paines Plough has done the work, BBC executives may want to schedule a meeting with Richard Davidson and Toby Farrow soonest.

Toby O'Connor Morse

Octagon Theatre Bolton, (01204 520661) 11-13 Nov; Live Theatre Newcastle (0191-232 1232) 15-16 Nov