THEATRE / The Fringe: Working girls

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The Independent Culture
You can see why Sue Glover wanted to write Sacred Hearts, now brought to the Drill Hall by the Scottish theatre company Communicado. It's based on the 1975 Lyons prostitutes' strike, when local working girls occupied the cathedral, taking refuge from a sex killer and at the same time protesting at the attitude of the police, who evidently felt that as long as the murderer stuck to tarts he could be left in peace. It's hard to think of a starker illustration of the two extremes of men's images of women - Madonna and whore.

You can also see what a problem this is for the writer, though - how can you write a play that lives up to the situation? Glover has more or less given up, offering a series of linked sketches, in which the women talk us through their backgrounds, while the priest and a variety of male misfits - including the killer at one point - thrash out their contradictory attitudes to sex.

Myra McFadyen's production doesn't get over the play's bitty nature. It never builds the momentum it needs, so that the big ensemble set-pieces don't reach the right pitch of energy. In the quieter moments, the cast shows what it can do - especially in a powerful confrontation between Therese, nice Catholic girl gone wrong, and the subdued, dignified priest. But overall, the main emotion the play produces is disappointment.

The cloistered women of Paper Walls, at the New Grove on Euston Road, are in a rather different situation: a mother and her two daughters are trapped inside their house - a wooden shed marooned in the middle of the stage - by a half-glimpsed male. They spend their days on DIY (sawing and hammering come from inside), sometimes marching, parade-ground style, in identical red coats to B & Q. Every so often, one of them steps outside to tell you something about herself - they're all rather shy and awkward, but determined to act natural. You slowly learn about the routine degradation and sexual abuse that characterise these excruciating lives, and the fear that holds the women in check.

Despite the fact that there's no conventional narrative, the outlines of the (true) story are clear, and it's always gripping. Paper Walls is also, apart from being grim, deeply funny and brilliantly performed by Scarlet Theatre - not the most optimistic night out you could have, but well worth the detour.

It's a relief, after this, to get back to the more conventional domestic relations of Lady Windermere's Fan; although in Rough Magic's production, revived at the Tricycle, the manic cross-dressing and undressing suggests an extremity of sexual ambivalence that's anything but conventional. These transvestite shenanigans provide some neat moments (excellent Sean Kearns struggling out of a ball-gown just in time for the line 'We men are never what we seem') but, coupled with some rather low-powered central performances, they create an ironic distance from the text which undermines the effect of Wilde's own ironies. You wish in the end that they could have played it - how shall I put this? - straight.

'Sacred Hearts' is on until Saturday at the Drill Hall, London WC1 (071-637 8270). 'Paper Walls', to 30 April, New Grove, NW1 (071-383 0925). 'Lady Windermere's Fan', Tricycle, Kilburn NW6 (071-328 1000)

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