Riverside Studios, London W6
Opened 9 January, 2003

"Professional wrestling, musical theater, slam poetry, television news, religious sermons, and self-help manuals serve as the blueprint for a style that is simultaneously familiar and disorienting, satirical yet deadly serious." With at least 95% of theatre companies, such a statement would signal earnest, self-satisfied, unfocused and overblown tripe. In the case of The Riot Group (from whose Web site it comes), it is no more than succinct and descriptive. After a clutch of awards on recent Edinburgh Fringes, this exhilaratingly intense young American company now makes its first visit to London with its 2002 show Victory At The Dirt Palace.

James Mann (Paul Schnabel) is the king of television network news (the title is not used lightly: read on), now facing competition from his daughter K (Stephanie Viola) on a station which is at once in deep rivalry with his and merely the other side of the same coin. The Manns and their respective producer/assistants conduct high-speed verbal and ratings battles whilst reporting as-it-happens on a September 11-style atrocity and war (news of the attack, declaration of war and announcement of victory all come within about four minutes of each other) and attempting to settle the succession on James Mann's sudden retirement.

For this is also a rewrite, of sorts, of King Lear, albeit one in which K incorporates elements of both the independent yet loving Cordelia and her treacherous sisters. Writer/director Adriano Shaplin's text contains, it is claimed, exactly 103 words of Shakespeare's text, interspersed amid other material ranging from cod-heroic bombast to semi-surreal bitchery such as "I'm the son he never had" "No, you're the kitten he never drowned".

Even in the smallest of the three Riverside Studios, the stage alone is around twice the size of the entire cramped venue in which the show played in Edinburgh. Yet even with room to breathe, it retains its claustrophobic intensity. All four performers are almost continuously seated, but still convey a terrific energy, giving their all vocally, emotionally and intellectually.

Shaplin's black view of American, and thus global, culture impresses through the originality of its style more than of its content. Sometimes, too, that style can take time to tune in to, as with his use (continuing on from earlier work) of the term "Salvon" as a kind of brand-name shorthand for the whole nexus of social, political, religious and corporate values that make up America's sense of itself; even the two television networks here have the acronyms SAL and VON. But the inventiveness, commitment and postmodern panache of The Riot Group make them a company to savour.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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