THEATRE / The Fringe: Great repression

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Not that sexual repression is a good thing, but where would theatre be without it? It is, for instance, the crux of David Halliwell's classic tale of art-school rebellion in Huddersfield, Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, brilliantly revived by Dominic Hill at the Room.

Malcolm Scrawdyke's aggression and scorn for the emasculated establishment are a cover for sexual inadequacy - so it's ironic that back in 1965 the Lord Chamberlain's office licensed the play for performance only on condition that the name of Scrawdyke's Party of Dynamic Erection be changed to Party of Dynamic Insurrection throughout.

Not that the play is unshocking - the violent misogyny of the climax is still disturbing, even when, as here, that scene is incongruously awkward and unconfident. Perhaps that reflects an uncertainty about what Halliwell is trying to say - is Scrawdyke a representative student revolutionary, or a nascent Hitler? Or is the point that the two things are much of a muchness?

At any rate, the play is worth seeing less for its political message than for the Ruritanian comedy of the Party's paranoid campaign against the headmaster Allard, set up as head of some vast reactionary conspiracy. The comic scenes are dominated, paradoxically, by James Kerr's paralysingly self-effacing Irwin - a part created by Rodney Bewes, although it's hard to imagine him managing Kerr's final assumption of dignity half so well.

Sexual repression also lies behind the drama of Forever Yours, Marie-Lou, brought to the Old Red Lion in Islington from the Tron in Glasgow. In fact, the repression comes as something of a relief, since for three-quarters of the proceedings it looks as though the revelation we're headed for is going to be about either wife-beating or child sex abuse, both subjects of which the fringe is inordinately fond.

This is about the only light the play offers, though. The rest of the time Michel Tremblay's portrait of a Quebecois marriage snarled up by hatred and recrimination is hard to watch, because it is unblenchingly grim, but also because it is insufferably static.

The burden of the story shifts constantly between four characters and two time schemes - Marie-Lou, complaining of her husband's bestial demands; Leopold, the husband, fuming that they've only had sex four times in 20 years and she's got pregnant four times; and their daughters, 10 years later - Carmen, young free and single, and Manon, determined to carry on her mother's legacy of inhibition. At the same time, the translation into Scots dialect, by Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay, is full of points of interest and small felicities. But the life in the language is effectively repressed by the deadly immobility on stage, where everybody sits rigid, staring into space. A dynamic erection, a dynamic anything at all, would be welcome.

You feel a similar sense of frustration watching Barnaby Downing, a study of a young man coming to terms with being 'homosexual' - definitely not gay - written and acted by John Quentin at the New End. Script, set and performance are cleverly evocative of time (the 1950s) and place (an Oxford college); but perhaps that's the problem - it seems too particular and too remote to be involving.

'Little Malcolm . . . ' continues to 8 May at the Room, Orange Tree Pub, Richmond, Middx (081-940 3633) 'Forever Yours, Marie-Lou', to 7 May, the Old Red Lion, London EC1 (071- 837 7816). 'Barnaby Downing', to 22 May, New End Theatre, London NW3 (071-794 0022)