Talking in tongues: Review: On The Fringe

ON THE FRINGE
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The Independent Travel
Something seems to have been lost in translation at Camden's Etcetera theatre this week. Lickers and Kickers, by the Russian satirist Emil Braginsky, is set in a VIP holiday home in Gorbachev's Russia, the kind of place where Politburo members come for rest, recuperation, and a bit of class struggle with the chamber maids. But Braginsky's play is no Carry On Up the Crimea. Indeed, if the play's poster didn't hail the "comic genius" of "the Neil Simon of Russia" you'd be hard pressed to know it was a comedy at times.

Corruption is Braginsky's target. Rimma Petrovna (Gena Rowland), the iron lady who runs the VIP resort, has a problem with her new maid: she's too squeaky clean. Asya (Alison Breminer) used to be the hardest working waitress in the city's Canteen No 8. She never accepted tips or slept with men for money, and being faultless she threatens the collective's sleazy status quo. So Petrovna springs a honeytrap, ordering the gym instructor to disguise himself as a politician and seduce Asya.

Petrovna's advice on how to get on in Gorby's Russia is poisonously simple: "You learn to lick ass in order to kick ass" and Asya is soon playing the game. She ousts Petrovna, dispenses with her principles, and squares the circle of corruption - although it's typical of the heavy-handed plotting that we're never shown how Asya squares her coup with the authorities.

A less leaden translation would have helped. So would a production that developed the characters more. In that way, the action might not seem quite so specific to Eighties' Russia. On this evidence, however, Lickers and Kickers comes across as a mouldy period piece, as dead as Lenin in his tomb but not so well-embalmed.

In five years' time, The Fundraisers (The Finborough) will probably look past its sell-by date, too. But then, one suspects, it was never meant to have a long shelf-life. Written to coincide with the General Election campaign, Tony Marchant's play is a satire about the NHS's increasing reliance on charity. Tom Watt (best remembered as lovable dimwit Lofty in EastEnders) gives a tart central performance as the suit hired to raise pounds 300,000 to get rid of a hospital's waiting list. Watt has a similar psychotic charm to Nigel Havers, a dash of Gordon Brittas in the voice, and frown lines that descend from the side of his eyes and make him look like he's wearing a rubber mask which, at any moment, he'll rip off to reveal the demon beneath.

The Fundraisers is very rough around the edges. It's ironic that a play which is so sceptical about the emotional manipulation involved in fundraising should use similarly crude tactics to get its point across. Acts of sin and sanctity litter the action and, in case we find Watt's character too ambiguous, a scene in which he betrays a lover damns him to hell.

But, though the structure disappoints, the play boasts some enjoyably pointed one-liners ("What is it about this country and lifeboats?") and accomplished acting from the Steam Industry. And, during the election campaign, you can guarantee you won't see anything like it on TV.

I have to admit, I don't understand Japan. I don't get the allure of karaoke bars, or million-selling bands made up of teenage girls. Mishima and Sakamoto leave me cold. I don't even like sushi. Now to that list I have to add renaissance woman Mari Natsuki: million-selling pop star, queen of Tokyo musicals, admired by Steven Berkoff and possessed of a legion of fans known as Natsukisuto.

The Impressionist (ICA), a series of songs by Steve Reich, Kurt Weill and Michael Nyman, is as bemusing as Natsuki's stage persona itself: part forces' sweetheart, part vamp, part little girl who's been playing with her mother's make-up. I liked her hammy Dietrichesque singing - each line gains an extra syllable or three- and the band play with such Muppet- like ferocity you could imagine them becoming a cult act on their own. But, as a theatrical experience, it is impenetrable. In the bits between the songs, Natsuki makes patterns with a pile of sand or hurls aluminium poles across the stage, gestures so inward-turned as to be meaningless. For the second time this week, something has been lost in translation.

Etcetera Theatre London NW1 (0171-482 4857) to 6 April; Finborough Theatre London SW10 (0171-373 3842) to 29 March; ICA, London SW1 (0171-930 3647) to 29 March

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