Sell Out at the New Ambassadors

For the last couple of years, the Ambassadors has been home to the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, offering a West End home to the kind of small-scale (but often large-impact) work that used to be done in that charmed space high atop their home theatre, including the premieres of work that would later much achieve wider currency like Death and the Maiden, The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Steward of Christendom. At the Ambassadors, which was converted into two smaller spaces during their time there, that astonishing record continued with the original productions of The Weir and Shopping and Fucking, amongst others.

As the Court now prepares to return to Sloane Square in the autumn, the Ambassadors has been returned to the inventory of West End houses, rebranded the New Ambassadors and restored to one auditorium only. But it looks set to continue the good work initiated by the Court by implementing an artistic policy (rather than the ad hoc theatre-for-hire system that pertains elsewhere) in which fringe and cutting-edge productions will be given house room and a West End showcase.

Frantic Assembly's Sell Out - first seen at Battersea's BAC - is the perfect noisy introduction to announce this new initiative. It's a short, dynamic piece that owes as much to club culture and dance theatre as it does to drama, of which there is also plenty, all of it compressed and compacted into an event that is barely an hour long. In a culture where the attention span is now roughly fifteen minutes (the time between television commercial breaks), it's probably counted as something of a feat to hold people for four times as long, never mind the kind of duration that a normal play requires.

What's normal, anyway? Frantic Assembly - whose very name conjures the urgency of their work - set out to break the rules of conventional theatrical storytelling, yet (as it happens) tell a very compelling story in the process. Sell Out, written by Michael Wynne and choreographed by TC Howard, is a short, sharp shock of a play that is a compressed and compacted account of contemporary coupling and friendship, betrayal and hurt. Stephen (played by Steven Hoggett) and Kate (Cait Davis) are dating, and celebrating his birthday with their friends, Scot (Scott Graham) and Ansti (Anstey Thomas). Soon after, Kate decides to dump Stephen, and Scot, who has always fancied Kate (and once had a drunken one-night stand with her), makes a play for her. Ansti, meanwhile, observes from the sidelines, and even in her state of non-committal, finds herself drawn into this tangled web of relationships.

It's a familiar enough tale (somewhat reminiscent of Patrick Marber's lacerating Closer), and deals with some obvious points (Bill Clinton isn't the only one to have a different definition of what actually constitutes sex), but in its bracingly original presentation, it does something powerful and exciting. The four performers are, perhaps, more accomplished in their often extraordinary physicality than their sometimes stilted delivery of dialogue, but I found it an uncomfortably compelling experience all the same.

Mark Shenton