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Go to town with tales of books and blades FRINGE THEATRE

TOWNSHIP STORIES, TRAVERSE THEATRE 4/5 THEwoman who is raped at the start of this astonishing South African play not only sets the tone of things to come, but, as silent witness to her own murder, is the pivot on which all the acting that follows hangs on.

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Downtown, a serial killer is on the loose. Elsewhere, a young girl runs away from home to be with her loose cannon of a boyfriend, men drink themselves into a stupor and whoever has the biggest blade holds sway. The bookish son of the detective in charge has his eye on the daughter of the local shebeen owner. In-between poring through his copy of The Catcher In The Rye, he strikes up a relationship with both generations in what he describes, with some irony, as "transferring affection".

What follows are a series of pulp fiction short cuts born from a working knowledge of Martin Scorsese movies, 1970s TV cop shows, Fritz Lang's M and both big screen versions of Lolita. Put its trash-culture obsession into a restless environment where violence can flare up out of the hyperactive tension any minute, and where misogyny and abuse co-exist with the spectre of Aids, and Paul Grootboom and Presley Chweneyagae's busy, messy bustle of a play is a darkly thrilling whirlwind so big it threatens to spill out of the auditorium.

Set to an oddly cheesy soundtrack, there are some genuinely harrowing moments. At the start of the second act, a woman is beaten to the strains of Carole King's Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, as a slow procession throws down an item of clothing with every blow. It's a startling image. As is the washing line strung across the stage on which, after every killing, a totem is hung - be it a pair of pants that strangled someone to death, flip-flops or a beanie hat.

With a cast of 16, Grootboom's production is a serious slice of grown-up populism. In its depiction of a brutalised society, it's sorrowdrowning finale suggests that, beyond its killing fields, a wonderful life is a matter of how you see things. NC Until August 27.

THE GYNTISH SELF, HILL STREET THEATRE 3/5

TIMED to coincide with this year's centenary of Ibsen's death, the baby-faced Measureless Liars company have set themselves the ultimate challenge of updating the Norwegian's most audacious epic to a bite-sized 55 minutes. What they've come up with in this soap-operastyle treatment remains pretty faithful, as crotch-led tearaway Peer does a runner as an errant father to enter a class-bound world of golf playing, Chris de Burgh-loving toffs.

What emerges in Rob Drummond, Alan Gilmour and Ewan Glass's script is a jaunty skim through our hero's search for self that takes in street-smart localised patois and a deadpan acquisition of pop psychology therapy speak. "I just need to re-focus, " says Peer in one moment of reflection.

James Oakley and David Overend's production draws some gallus performances from their young cast of five in a timeless tale of action, consequence and responsibility which, with a fewmore resources, could end up as epic as its source. NC

BLEEP 'N' GRIND, UNDERBELLY 2/5 AS oddities go, a musical fable about 21st century celebrity and the downward spiral of a once-sparkling talent is familiar enough. Having it performed by robot puppets on a set seemingly culled from Scrapheap Challenge, on the other hand, is eye-poppingly strange.

B44913M(d) is the Performamatic jukebox robot who comes on like StarWars'C3PO as modelled on Kate Moss or any ladette casualty from the Brit-Pop wars. After ditching the band who discovered her, she's moulded, styled, rebranded and offered a shedload of automaton-friendly rock 'n' roll narcotics. Crashing and burning as only a lump of metal can, B's excesses soon catch up with her.

With a thumping score from Birmingham-based band Pram, there are hints that, for all the trash sci-fi trappings, it's a world they're all too familiarwith. Yet, as obvious as Cloud Cuckoo Land's extended metaphor about how raw talent is manufactured by music-biz moguls is, you can't help but feel its creators haven't quite thought things through beyond the one-hit wonder you're left with here. With more development, coherence and brevity in a less formal environment, Bleep 'N' Grind might come to life. As it is, it's in the wrong venue at the wrong time and, like B, can't help but looking lost in a world it doesn't fully understand. NC Until August 27.

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