A walk on the Wilde side

Theatre
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The Independent Culture
IF THE dead were allowed days off, I'd ask Oscar Wilde to tea with Peter Tatchell. Wilde was "outed" a century ago, just as The Importance of Being Earnest was opening in London. The play is a sunny fantasy for any potential outee, a comic safe haven where double lives are harmlessly lived, nobody gets hurt and a man may eat his muffins "quite calmly".

English Touring Theatre's anniversary version promises more candour than it delivers. Lucy Hall's design of drapes, cushions and velvets evokes exotic pleasures; Algernon (Charles Edwards) enters in Turkish trousers with a hookah to hand. Surely this is a chance to demonstrate that he and Jack (Geoffrey Church) prefer eating Turkish delight to courting those domineering corsets Gwendolen and Cecily? But nothing more decadent passes between them than a quick kiss.

Nicholas Wright's pleasant production has one other card to play: drag artist Bette Bourne as Lady Bracknell, spiked with feathers and upholstered in red satin. In fact, Lady Bracknell's gender is the least important thing about her. She is the authority figure against whom these skittish young things rebel, but also the safety catch that averts disaster. The safety catch that Wilde didn't have.

I can't believe that any self-respecting 16-year-old talks about his or her parents as much as the adolescents in Borders of Paradise, Sharman Macdonald's latest play. Her teenage boys are a clean-living bunch - cider-drinking their worst vice - enjoying a day's surfing after their exams. On the cliff above, Ellen (Kathy Kiera Clarke) is training her binoculars on their skin-tight wetsuits.

Macdonald's great strength is her ear for dialogue: her play The Winter Guest is memorable for two old ladies arguing over whether there was cream before the Suez crisis. But adolescence isn't her strong suit. Granted, these boys are a bit pretentious: they like Nirvana and Emily Dickinson. But does the average teenager really come back from a good day's surfing and speak of "an obscene will to live - an awful joy"?

The girls are funnier, and better characterised, but they are kept segregated on their clifftop until well into the second half. A hint of sexual tension between two of the boys is never explored. Lou Stein, in his valedictory production for the Watford Palace, directs a keen young cast, but can't overcome a sense of stasis.

When the world ends, will the stars fall? Will there be pestilence or simply silence? And will the Danes be the last to know? These speculations are brought to mind by Astrid Saalbach's Morning and Evening, which foxed me despite my Danish aunts. The first half counterpoints scenes from the lives of three couples; the second, with new characters, takes place at an increasingly fraught dinner party in a summer garden. This sudden change of gear - light to dark, domestic drama to near apocalypse - doesn't make artistic sense. Like a detective novel you worry: did I miss a clue? There are early intimations of gloom (a bride with a terminal illness), and some details recur. But should they be attributed to reincarnation or a bad case of dj vu?

Such obscurities are the fault of the author, not of director John Dove and his energetic cast. Alex Kingston gives an uncomfortably vivid portrayal of a woman guzzling her way through the last nervous stages of pregnancy; Jonathan Cullen shines as a pedantic academic who turns to home cooking.

But prime credit must go to designer Robert Jones for a set that would grace a garden centre: branches accessorised with moss and a tasteful brick wall. There was a strong temptation to collar him on the way out and ask what he feeds to his azaleas.

`Morning and Evening': Hampstead, NW3, 071-722 9301, to 15 Apr. `Borders of Paradise': Watford Palace, 0923 225671, to 8 Apr. `The Importance of Being Earnest': Buxton Opera House, 0298 72190, Tues-Sat; then touring.

Irving Wardle returns next week.

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