Theatre: A call to armchairs

Seeing Red BAC, London
When they ask, "Where were you in May '98?", what will you say? Mutter something about the FA Cup or hold your head up high and declare that, yes, you were there in Battersea Arts Centre. You were in the front-row when a handful of actors took on the entire Government. If only. Judging by phase one of Seeing Red, a "festival of dissent" that comprises 16 short plays with an overtly political dimension, the spirit of radicalism has yet to return to the fringe, erstwhile home of protest.

A call to arms was never really an option. The season is timed to coincide with two anniversaries - May '68 and May '97 - and the playwrights commissioned by The Red Room theatre company were asked to bear both in mind. The year of taking a stand versus the year of taking a seat; sea-change versus ripple. Though convenient, the double-date doesn't seem to have helped the writers work out how to hold a mirror up to today's electorate.

"You could really see every single thing that didn't happen," says Nick, one of a group of EC1 squatters who turns sardonic political commentator in Roddy McDevitt's Election Night in the Yard - the first of six plays in the opening showcase (directed by the Red Room triumvirate of Lisa Goldman, Bernadette Moran and Deborah Bruce). This negative sentiment has become commonplace since May 1 last year and it's hardly an invigorating starting point. But then the emphasis in all six is on dialogue rather than action; on what's wrong, rather than on what could be done. In McDevitt's piece, interest is sustained by some adroitly rendered boozy invective, delivered with desultory confidence by the cast, mainly about the way yuppies are buying into the squat lifestyle. It would be better off without the topical gags, as fetid as last year's butter mountains, and the intrusion of a monstrously caricatured Blair babe.

Instantly-disillusioned Rose in Aidan Healy's Cry If I Want To is barely more believable. A minister in the new Government, she contemplates quitting during the first anniversary party (understandable, they're still playing D:Ream). "Eighteen years and I can't see the join," she wails. It's watchable enough, as is Jon Tompkins' satirical fairytale The Cows are Mad about Bill and Hillary, old liberal-badge-wearing airheads, but neither Tompkins nor Healy has any fresh insights about those who reign in the cloud cuckooland of party politics.

Peter Barnes and Judy Upton don't aim so high and consequently come away with more credit. Their two-handers, giving voice to the lives of down- trodden citizens, gently imply that audience involvement is a step in the right direction. Barnes' The Head Invents, The Heart Discovers is little more than a stream of near-nonsense from an old couple to which the listener must attach meaning. In Upton's Know Your Rights an elderly woman sues her neighbour, a single-mother, after her child knocks her over. Hearing from each in turn, we get a broader picture, as fear of penury and ignorance of the law split the last vestiges of urban community.

The most ambitious offering comes from Tony Craze. Fragmenting Red runs through the whole evening and attempts to juxtapose the compromised aspirations of Bill, a Sixties theatre-radical-turned-cheesy arts minister with the cynicism of Kyla, the young woman who's making a video critique of him.

Like the season, it's laudable enough, but their tortuous arguments come to resemble an unheated session in the House of Lords. Wake me up when the revolution starts.

'Seeing Red' runs to 28 June BAC, London, SW11 (0171-223 2223)