For all that Frantic Assembly's physical theatre shows are often described as "unpretentious", they do actually verge on the ponderous whenever the company start listening to those who hail them as the future of British theatre and get all self-conscious. Thankfully, Underworld, which plays for a bare week at the Lyric Hammersmith, has little or none of that.
Its genre is easier to describe in cinematic than in theatrical terms: quite simply, it's an "old dark house" story. Literally old and dark, as a power cut plunges the place into winter night, and the female quartet – psychiatrist George and disturbed younger sister Lydia, who live there, and George's friends edgy, selfish Marcie and well-meaning new-agey Sarah, up for the weekend – find themselves stranded in the wilds and hearing chilling voices. Are they from the stones of the house, a former inhabitant (Lydia's dead twin Lizzie), or the women's darker psyches?
Nicola McCartney's script is a deft piece of work, combining playfulness (as the women converse in '80s song lyrics), discretion (there's a motif in the story which pings the audience's "gaydar" but is never made explicit) and directness that is not bludgeoning. You can see the ending coming, but that too is a characteristic of the genre – it's the suspense and the inevitability that make the ride exciting. Also, in this case, the specifically female and generational edge to the growing hysteria, as the question looms constantly of how much is supernatural and how much springing from and fed by the women's own minds – their histories, neuroses and sensitivities. The atmosphere is racked up by a well chosen and skilfully deployed score ranging from Barry White to Nine Inch Nails.
Under the direction of founder members Steven Hoggett and Scott Graham, the Frantics' trademark physicality crops up only in a few sequences – a shockingly sudden overture, an episode in which the nightmares of all four are enacted and of course the conclusion. Narrative is a relatively fresh avenue for the company (first explored only with 1999's Sell Out), but one that seems to suit them, especially when they engage writers of the calibre of McCartney; at least a nod to their more usual first-person approach also remains, in that the characters have the same first names as the performers.
A week is not a long enough London run for this show. Zero is not nearly enough Arts Council funding for the company; Underworld is staged thanks to the beneficence of a number of angels listed in a hastily stapled-in addition to the programme. The Frantics may not be the all-conquering saviours of young British theatre, but they're a highly talented company who deserve much more than this.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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