THEATRE / Sisters doing it for themselves: Sarah Hemming, in the first of a new weekly column on London Fringe theatre, considers sex and the single post-feminist

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The Independent Culture
A THIN Glasgow housewife in pink housecoat and fluffy slippers takes the Lilian Baylis stage and addresses the audience conspiratorially. 'You know self-help books? Those books that help you beat your addictions?' Pause, while she blasts a cloud of Marlboro smoke down her nose. 'Well, I'm addicted to them.' Sally (whose habit has acquired her such masterpieces as How to Recognise Your Lunch and Women Who Love Too Much) is just one of the bemused characters in Monstrous Regiment's cabaret, I've Got Nothing to Wear. With this new show, the company born of the feminist roll of the early Seventies now offers us a quick sprint around the minefield of post- feminism. 'Once, men were bastards; underwear was torture,' reflects one character, nostalgically. Today, nothing is quite so simple. In 1993 you can be angry with men and still shave your legs. (But what about your bikini-line?)

The show flits from scrambled issue to scrambled issue - identity, sex, men, dieting, career, bodyhair, childbirth, identity, sex, men . . . It's amusing, recognisable stuff, but that is about as far as it goes. Like a moisturising cream, the show is only skin-deep, never penetrating any of the issues it raises. Sketch endings need toning and shaping, and a few ideas are last season's fashion with a new accessory (creating a non-sexist language comes with the new twist of audience collaboration).

That said, it is consistently wry, never sanctimonious, and is performed with ebullience and appeal under Clare Venables's direction by the cast of three women (Sally Armstrong, Amanda Symonds and Michele Whitehead) and a new man (Matt Devereaux). And there are a few very funny scenes, particularly a New Age ante-natal class and a 'bathroom cabinet quiz'.

Monstrous Regiment was launched with the mission of placing women's issues centre stage. Whatever progress has been made over the ensuing two decades, a flurry of festivals focusing on women writers this spring suggests that many see the battle as far from won. The Finborough Arms, London, has just opened a six-play season, Women's Work; last night Black Mime Theatre's Heart ushered in a series of new shows by black women; Brunton Theatre in Edinburgh opens a season next week and, in April, Hull Truck presents three plays specifically about women's issues.

If the Finborough's first play is anything to go by, we are in for some startling stuff. Karen Hope's Foreign Lands is a chilling and extremely accomplished play. While it is constructed as a detective thriller, on a moral level it is a meditation on good and evil, explored through that most taboo of figures, the female child-murderer. This astute combination of style and content keeps you white- knuckled.

As the play opens, Rosie, a neat teacher, arrives to take up her rented accommodation in a Tyneside boarding house. She establishes a reassuring relationship with her landlady and reaches an uncanny understanding with her autistic daughter. But it soon becomes clear that Rosie is not what she seems and, as the truth about her emerges, the play slips anchor and moves off into sinister waters.

Hope skilfully controls both the slow seepage of information and the moral questions that the play raises. Creating in Rosie (Steph Bramwell) a quiet, manipulative character who wields religion in a frightening way, Hope ranges alongside her the moral confusion of her landlady (Marlene Sidaway) and the purity of the autistic daughter (an excellent Tracy Gillman). The play has faults - Hope spends too long scene-setting and the first act moves slowly (Jessica Dromgoole's direction does nothing to gee it up). But play and production tighten the screws superbly in Act 2, and the performances build to a disturbing crescendo.

At the Bush, London, Lucinda Coxon's tempestuous play Waiting at the Water's Edge uses a past setting to consider how women define themselves. Two young Welsh women meet on a Harlech beach in 1923. Vi is dark and self-absorbed; Su is cheerful, resilient and chatty. Both are lonely.

Su adopts a protective attitude to Vi, but when the two girls become housemaids in England, their paths diverge. Vi embarks on a relationship with the son of the house that culminates in a bizarre twist by which she replaces him (suit and all) on a business trip to Nova Scotia.

The play is sprinkled with funny lines, has a fluent feel and some beautifully written scenes, though the plot takes some swallowing and a few of the incidents are pure Ealing comedy (two characters earnestly stuffing a dead body into a trunk, for instance). Its core comes with the contrapuntal scenes that chart the two women's discovery of their capabilities. Vi, in Canada, slips alarmingly well into a businessman's suit and ruthless capitalist ways (Suzanna Hamilton giving an expertly controlled performance); Su, at home, starts to take charge over her lonely, paralysed mistress.

It is the tender scenes that Coxon writes best: the undercurrent of unexplored lesbian feelings between the two girls is subtly touched on and the gradual blossoming of friendship between the proud Therese (Amelda Brown) and Su (Helen Anderson) is handled with humour, and beautifully performed. Deftly directed (Polly Teale), this curious play ends with moving serenity, as all the three women finally find their proper niches. And that's without a self-help guide.

'I've Got Nothing to Wear', Lilian Baylis, London EC1 to 16 Jan (071- 837 4104), then tours; 'Foreign Lands', Finborough Arms, London SW10, to 30 Jan (071-373 3842); 'Waiting at the Water's Edge', Bush, London W12, to 30 Jan (081- 743 3388)