Theatre: Treading an emotional tightrope

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FRANTIC ASSEMBLY, the pulsating, lyrically violent, in-your-face theatre company, has come of age. Its club-culture trademarks are still there - rapid, pumping music to up your heart-rate, and a trend-conscious audience with so many piercings that all you need is a magnet to get their undivided attention - but this time there is a depth and a richness that stirs at the same time as it exhilarates.

The dynamic, life-changing force in this production is death, which looms at the audience out of the blackness of the set before breaking down each character's conversation. Four men in their twenties have come together to mourn a fifth, and the script initially shows them skating giddily over their grief with a barrage of jokes, bloke-talk, and beer- swilling. Three of them are frantic to avoid unhappiness, treating it as if it were some black vortex waiting to rip their lives apart and leave them spinning out of control. But the fourth, Steven, blocks all their conversational means of escape, and the result is a display of emotion in which alternately explosive and lyrical choreography maps out the pattern of their words.

When the curtain goes up, the characters are indistinguishable from the darkness, each one attached half-way-up to one of four gleaming metallic- ladders. Over the course of the play, director Liam Steel carefully aligns movement with emotion, so that after their slithering descent you are entertained by sequences such as a boys' drinking - session sculpted through the air in swoops of back-patting and beer - bottles, or an unnerving and physically slick routine where they take it in turns to fly into the position of a corpse on the table. The movement becomes most interesting when they start, for the first time, to talk about their feelings: one boy sits on a chair which wobbles violently to indicate the gulf of uncertainty he feels opening up below him, while another walks a tight-rope sequence across a ladder suspended above the stage.

The raw, exciting material from Frantic's earlier work still informs the idiom of the dance, but Steel's lengthy experience with DV8 has enabled him to raise it to new emotional levels.

Although the actors do not always manage to make their words heard above the music, as an ensemble they create an exciting and balanced performance, matching understated macho exchanges with an extraordinary physical versatility. The script-writer, Chris O'Connell, who stormed this year's Edinburgh with his high-octane play Car, has shown once more how well he can pierce the skin of the emotionally alienated male, allowing his characters to grope their way to some kind of resolution while avoiding the cliches strewn in their way. His strong sense of linguistic rhythm both sustains and complements Frantic Assembly's style. It seems that the company has found a dynamic formula - it should stick with it.

To 4 December (0181-741 2311)