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Theatre: Season of short, sharp shocks

Moments That Made The Year: The spaces have kept on the move, but then so have the best of the new writers. By Paul Taylor
In purely geographical terms, it's been a confusing year. Whether because of lottery-funded refurbishments, brewery-enforced overhauls or callous evictions, most of London's key purveyors of new writing have had to play "musical venues". So, in order to catch the latest new offering from the Bush, you've had to remember not to catch the tube to Shepherd's Bush but to head, instead, for the Lyric Studio or Electric Cinema. Going to the Royal Court now involves a trip into the West End and struggling to recall whether the Theatre Downstairs is the old Duke of York's or whether it's the old Ambassador's (aka the Theatre Upstairs - where Stephen Daldry and designer William Dudley have, to confuse matters still further, carved out two new spaces - the Stage and the Circle - from the old auditorium). "Which side is up?" is a question that is now, more than usual, up in the air.

It's heartening to report, though, that when you finally tracked down these places in 1996, you tended to be given the goods. If one of the primary duties of theatre is to confront a society with itself - to make it catch its reflection from a new, revealing and inescapably warranted angle - then the Court and the Bush have both been fulfilling that function with great flair. The burgeoning talents of the post-Thatcher 20-something generation, who write about the moral drift and tribal youth culture of contemporary urban life, have been handled with sensitivity and creative solicitude.

My one quarrel with Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking (which opened - to a flurry of censorious asterisks - in October and returns to the Royal Court on 8 Jan) is that it tried too hard to be the summary statement of our times. What can't be questioned is Ravenhill's skill at turning sharp empirical observation into a kind of diagnostic symbolism or the economy with which he conjures up a dysfunctional, disconnected, disposable world where the only relationships that can be trusted are those which can be turned into transactions. It's an extreme vision and there are one or two scenes in the play which had this critic on the point of fainting away. But it never feels gratuitous: rather, the work of a young man who can look hard at moral horror and not lose his balance, sanity, wit or compassion.

That opening was also an example of how - albeit initially for pragmatic reasons - the Court has contrived to break the hamster wheel of conventional West End theatre-going. The sound insulation at the Ambassador's does not allow both spaces to be used simultaneously, entailing a late start (eg 9.30pm) for one of the evening's two shows. Can we think, in theatre terms, of a post-watershed slot? Certainly, if you take the example of Jim Cartwright's I Licked a Slag's Deodorant, the 9.30 start-time allows for a piece that is shorter (under an hour), more off-the-wall and more lyrically intense than you would normally expect in this neighbourhood - and one that can appeal to young adults who may have had a few drinks, rather than the one ritual gin and tonic, beforehand. It's good that Daldry, who could have charmed money for a Cavalier theatre season out of Cromwell himself, is using the financial backing of the Jerwood Foundation to such unstable ends.

As for The Beauty Queen of Leenane, written by the prolific, unstoppable newcomer, Martin McDonagh, who seems to have marched straight to the top of the class, I couldn't decide whether it was the real thing or an extremely clever fake. It will be easier to tell if he has more than a quite awesome competence when his new play The Cripple of Inishmaan opens at the National next month. Let's hope he does.

In the West End proper, where McDonagh is surely bound, the play that has set cash registers ringing is Yasmina Reza's Art. The teamwork of Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney and Ken Stott is a delight to behold, but the piece itself is like something a computer might have come up with if asked to devise a worldwide boulevard hit. Nobody ever lost money on a play that can flatter either an audience's philistinism or its desire to feel in-the-know about fashionable cultural issues. Art also has the advantage of being a "Three Tenors Concert" without the music. It's a cut above Old Wicked Songs or Tolstoy (or anything else from the tiny amount of new work that has come into the West End from the largely non- subsidised sector). But that doesn't mean we have to fool ourselves about Art's quality. It's essentially a product, cleverly but shallowly written, for people who, when they hear the word "art", reach for a chocolate.