AT THE start of Sell Out, there's a birthday celebration for twentysomething Steve that is creepy in a way you can't quite pin down. His lover, Cait, and two friends ply him with birthday cake and with presents which ominously include a self-help book. By the end, when there's a replay of this ceremony, now drained of all innocence by hindsight, you are in a position to gauge the clumsy mix of kindliness and sheer lack of tact in that gift.
Performed by the hip physical theatre company, Frantic Assembly, the show - which is scripted by Michael `The Knock' Wynne - melds speech and athletic modern dance movement as it follows the snowballing emotional damage created by the break-up of Cait and Steve's relationship. The analogy that might first spring to mind is with Closer, suggesting that this is a sort of bitter verbal punch-up plus ballet; but the aesthetic of the piece, in aligning dialogue and abstract gesture to the accompaniment of bursts of techno-music, is much more akin to what David Greig and Suspect Culture achieved in a piece like Timeless.
A paranoid desire for control and a fear of showing vulnerability appear to be the guiding principles of the foursome in Wynne's play. Doggedly tough, Cait Davies's character (the actors use their own names) is driven to dump people before they can dump her. Her arms flailing convulsively round her body, she claws at her person as though trying to pull out by the roots all memory of contact. Emotion here is routinely literalised - for example, when the Anstey Thomas character offers the discarded lover emotional support, she has to shift him like some slipping, dead-weight ventriloquist's dummy from knee to knee. The kind of girl who tries to convince herself that she can derive all of her emotional sustenance from friendships, Anstey is repeatedly detained, hauled around and squashed by the dangling feet of her chums who are perched like predators on top of the walls surrounding her.
The piece was lapped up by the largely twentysomething audience I saw it with. I wish I could be as positive. What jarred with me was the edge of portentousness. There may be humour here but it is never of a kind that therapeutically punctures the self-importance of the participants. Stiflingly, everything is seen in their rather banal terms. Watching the show, I was reminded of what TS Eliot said about wit: "It involves, probably, a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible." On that definition, Sell Out is systematically devoid of wit, since in the expression of this quartet's experience, you are hectored into forgetting that any other sort of life is conceivable.
I'd be sorry to think that Frantic Assembly's shows will continue to make older people feel that youth is a nightmare from which it is heaven to have woken up.
To 4 July. Box office: 0171-836 6111