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Theatre: Snap, crackle and pop

Frantic Assembly has cracked theatre's longed-for youth market with a club-style, body-crashing fusion of dance and drama. What's in the mix?
In February this year, Liam Steel went back home to Grimsby for the funeral of one of his uncles. During the course of the day, he was struck by the muted behaviour displayed by his male relatives. They seemed unable to share their grief. "They all skirted around the issue," he recalls. "They shook hands in a formal way. It was strange - there were tears in their eyes, but they couldn't even bring themselves to give each other a hug."

He didn't forget the experience. In fact, he worked it straight into a show he had just been brought in to direct, by a young, upwardly mobile company called Frantic Assembly. Hymns, which comes to the Lyric, Hammersmith next week as part of a UK tour, deals with the emotional travails of four longstanding friends who reunite after paying their last respects to another friend, who has committed suicide. They too have great difficulty opening up to each other, but when it comes to body language, their communication problems are expressed in a wholly different way to anything that Steel saw on his trip back to Yorkshire.

Dressed in identikit black suits, the performers execute strenuous gymnastic manoeuvres on four 20ft ladders. They clamber up like monkeys. They hang down like bats. Chairs are hoisted aloft for mid-air confabs. Down below, backbreaking movements round a table transform blokey horseplay and brooding tics into a diffident, dark ballet. The soundtrack, a mix of celestial classical samples and satanic techno, often threatens to drown out the fakely jokey, bitterly recriminatory dialogue. Far from signifying closeness, the briskly impersonal hugs and holds amplify the sense of disconnection.

Anyone aware of Steel's CV - he is co-artistic director of the groundbreaking dance theatre company DV8 - might be tempted to attribute the eloquent display in Hymns solely to him rather than to the members of Frantic Assembly. The text for the show was written by another outsider, Chris O'Connell, the author of Car - a testosterone-fuelled piece about four joyriders that was the toast of this year's Edinburgh Fringe. Which begs the question: what is it, exactly, that Frantic Assembly do?

"Hmm, that's a tricky one." Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett give each other the mock-mystified stares of a vaudeville double-act. It's an issue that's trailed after them ever since they set up the company professionally in 1994, after graduating from Swansea University. On the one hand, the fact that they've barely got a minute to spare out of a punishing tour schedule for Hymns ("We've had roughly 28 seconds' holiday this year"), suggests that "working our butts off" would sum up their daily schedule, but Graham ventures to explain the company's unusual working methods, which rely heavily on collaboration.

"Right from the start, we were very fresh-faced," he says. "We needed help and we weren't afraid to ask people for advice and support. We got people on board who we trusted, people who knew what they were doing." Inspired and nurtured by Volcano, the Welsh physical theatre company which was in residency while they were students, they divided up responsibilities (with a third founder, Vicki Coles, taking an administrative role) and employed practitioners as tough-limbed and as keen on meaningful high- energy theatre as themselves.

After a body-slamming reworking of Look Back in Anger which began an association with the writer and performer Spencer Hazel, the company joined forces with members of the Featherstonehaughs and V-Tol dance companies to produce work that swiftly brought them attention: a trilogy of plays about twentysomething life (Klub, Flesh and Zero). Last year, teaming up with the Liverpudlian writer Michael Wynne and choreographer TC Howard resulted in the visually frenetic Sell Out, which probed further into the infidelities and anxieties of their generation. All the shows have had a thumping club soundtrack courtesy of Birmingham DJ Andy Cleeton.

It has clearly been a successful formula. From early on, Frantic have been packing out small-scale venues across the UK and been touted abroad by the British Council. They have a sizeable following: teenage fans and older admirers - including Steven Berkoff, Boy George, the film-maker Richard Kwietniowski and a raft-load of theatre critics. "Little old ladies love us," Graham smiles sweetly. Sell Out got them a run in the West End at the New Ambassadors in June. The stint at the 500-seater Lyric, Hammersmith, which the London theatre itself is backing, represents another step up.

The company has not reached the foothills of the theatrical establishment simply by riding on the back of other people's talent, though. "We always had very clear ideas about what we wanted," Graham explains. "We wanted to learn on the job, while retaining the freshness that comes with inexperience." Not having spent a minute in drama school, and disillusioned by the "lazy, irrelevant theatre" they saw around them, they embraced what they call "anti-acting".

An in-house style of sorts developed, one that traded on their naivety, honesty and outright cheekiness. Frantic performers used their own names on stage and shared frank, seemingly autobiographical confessions with the audience. They treated the acting area with the abandon of late-night clubbers. "We believed the work should come from conversations we'd had together and be conversational in tone," Hoggett says. It sounds like the slackest approach to theatre imaginable, but as Hoggett puts it, "we sweat like bastards over our work because there are no rules to follow".

Tom Morris, artistic director of the BAC - now Frantic's London base - recalls first seeing them. "What was so refreshing was that they had no received notions about theatre," he says. "They had simply found that their ideas could be best expressed by standing in front of other people. They seemed to have invented a form of performance that was utterly uncomplicated and immediately engaging."

Liam Steel, who has followed their career avidly, agrees. The collaborations wouldn't work, he believes, unless those coming in admired and deferred to Frantic's approach. "What I've done is to help them integrate text and movement more fully than in previous shows. I knew they could run around and slam into walls, all that. If anything, I've tried to bring out a softer quality, but I've never said, `This is how it should be'. They've been involved in the decision-making process from start to finish."

The involvement of Chris O'Connell, who was given a basic brief that the company wanted to explore modern masculinity, shifted Frantic for the first time more in the direction of "straight" acting, but only slightly.

"What I knew I couldn't do was write a piece in which each character had an involved fictional backstory," O'Connell explains. "They're not playing themselves this time, but they still use their own names. What I find exciting is that something is at stake for them as characters but they remain the sort of people you'd see in the street."

Or up a ladder. However high Frantic Assembly climb - and their plans already stretch way into the next century - their attitude remains firmly rooted in the everyday. "We've had a lot of dirty responses from large groups of girls so far on tour," Hoggett says, with bashful pleasure. "There's been a lot of wolf-whistling. I think we're being mistaken for window-cleaners." Provided they continue not to take themselves too seriously, they should be kept frantically busy for a long while yet.

`Hymns' is at the Lyric, Hammersmith, London W6 (0181-741 2311) 11 Nov-4 Dec