Unusual, strange and disturbing, pool (no water) is, as its title implies, both full and empty at the same time: full of grief, envy, malice and extraordinary music; empty of kindness, spirituality, sentimentality. Created by Frantic Assembly and written by Mark Ravenhill, the piece reflects the obsessions of both parties in its picture of a close group of art school friends mourning the death of one of them who became successful.

The project was fired when Ravenhill and Frantic directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett studied a book of photographs by Nan Goldin in which the lives of “bohemian, drug-addled, multi-sexual” friends were pinned down in art works. The result is an eerie sort of Lost Weekend, or Big Chill, in which the group shakes off its fashionable lip-service concerns with heroin-infected babies to visit the West Coast luxury home of the one who got away.

Some time is spent lamenting the death of two other friends, one from cancer, one from AIDS. This sets an atmosphere of cruel misfortune reflected back at the audience in Miriam Buether’s superb design of a tiled and empty swimming pool that will double as the antiseptic interior of the hospital ward where the corpse of the dead friend is anatomised and then recreated as both art work and sex toy for necrophiliacs.

When the four friends arrive at the pool, there is a nasty accident. This prompts both an escalation of their feelings about the victim and an examination of where they each stand in relation to each other and their own professional and personal aspirations. The four performers – Keir Charles, Cait Davis, Leah Muller and Mark Rice-Oxley – deliver Ravenhill’s text as a series of disconnected recitatives broken up with flurries of sudden movement. In the hospital, Muller becomes the corpse and artistic reincarnation of the dead artist.

As always with Frantic Assembly, the dance is rudimentary but expressive and there is a striking soundtrack by Imogen Heap, a sort of submerged garage sound with a solid beat and serial repetitions. Rice-Oxley sounds oddly posh in this context, his accent a manufactured sort of Noel Coward. But all four performers convey a hypnotic mixture of arrogance and neediness, especially Leah Muller in the nervous rush of switching between participant and outsider.

The piece may not have the overpowering scale and beauty of Frantic’s occupation of an old seaside hotel in Dirty Wonderland at the Brighton Festival last year, but it does mark a significant advance in the campaign to marry their morbid, theatrical, physical obsessions to a text strong enough to support them. The show, which was developed at the BAC and the NT studio, is co-produced with the Lyric and the Drum Theatre, Plymouth.

- Michael Coveney


Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from September 2006 and this production's previous run in Plymouth.

The inventive Frantic Assembly is back with a vengeance with pool (no water), a cutting edge piece in association with the Drum Theatre Plymouth and Lyric Hammersmith.

In its first new production for over a year, Frantic Assembly brings physical theatre and acclaimed writer Mark Ravenhill’s savage social drama together to explore life as art and the parameters of friendship and jealousy.

The bohemian, drug-addled ‘Group’, diminished by AIDS and cancer but bolstered by its lip-service commitment to helping heroin babies, is invited by an old friend to share the luxury her fame has brought her. And for one night the old art school Group is reunited; until their host suffers a ghastly accident.

The four are mesmerised by their friend’s broken body from the moment the screams start and that fascination becomes obsessive through the long days in the bleak hospital room. No strangers to illness and death, the cohesive Group is there to support their unconscious friend; but resentments and jealousies are candidly brought to bear on the battered body. And the Group, artists to the core, embarks on its next work of art.

The excellent cast Keir Charles, Cait Davis, Leah Muller and Mark Rice-Oxley play the Group (and at times their famous friend) in a cohesive and vigorous routine where witty words jostle with action and bitterness mixes with stillness as they tell their dark tale, excuse their actions and suggest that if you “were there then maybe, just maybe…”. And it does leave the audience thinking.

Under Frantic Assembly’s founder members Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett’s astute direction and choreography, creative chaos spills over Linbury Prize winner Miriam Buether’s stark pool/hospital room hybrid set to a contemporary soundtrack from Imogen Heap. Uncompromising and uncomfortable at times, the subject matter is thought-provoking and the vitality of movement enthralling.

pool (no water) is the first of a three-year artistic programme by Frantic Assembly following a series of practical workshops in collaboration at the National Theatre Studio and BAC and I, for one, can’t wait until the next production.

- Karen Bussell (reviewed at Drum Theatre, Plymouth)