Down and out in . . . London

WHILE fun-loving customers are packing into Sam Mendes' production of Oliver! for a picturesque fairy-tale on crime and poverty, the real London underworld now emerges at Mendes' own theatre in Phyllida Lloyd's production of The Threepenny Opera.

Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann famously stole this piece from Gay's The Beggar's Opera, since when it has never escaped from Berlin of the 1920s. The main claim for Lloyd's version is that it steals the work back for London. Peachum's Soho really is Soho, not some exotic Brechtian location.

The production is set in 2001, and its soft spot is that it tries to show where we are going as well as where we are now; so a gap opens up between Robert David Macdonald's translation (the 1986 National Theatre version) and the forecasts of the next millenium. I am not complaining. Every director has to reinvent The Threepenny Opera - an inspired idea with an incomparable score, lumbered with a book that constantly promises developments it fails to deliver. The additions of Lloyd and her team are calculated to reinforce it as a story of power and destitution, in which all parties are single-mindedly motivated by self-interest.

No matter that we never see Polly running the gang when MacHeath is arrested: we get to know her (Sharon Small) well enough from the one swift kidney-punch with which she proves herself boss, and from her blazing performance of "Pirate Jenny". No matter that the coro- nation of King William V never arrrives: it at least gives Tom Mannion's Peachum (a splendid tartan mafioso) the chance to mobilise a mass-turnout of topically disadvantaged beggars ("Junior doctor on 160 hours a week"), to be routed by a robotic regiment of riot police.

Without invoking sympathy for either side, the show stretches the polaries between them: on one hand the squalid brutalities of the criminal world, on the other the dehumanised technology of law and order. Besides raising the dramatic stakes, this also intensifies the effect of Weill's music, which becomes the last surviving outpost of human feeling. Jeremy Sams's translations of the lyrics combine an effortless flow of anglicised satire with a poignancy matching Brecht's own bleak poetry. To see Tom Ho llander's MacHeath wolfishly coupling with one of the Wapping tarts, and then making his farewell to Polly with a fals-etto reprise of the Liebeslied releases the springs of regret that lie behind the heartless facade. Hollander, a diminutive Napo-leonic figure with shoulder-length hair, is a sexy and dan- gerous MacHeath, in whom all traces of German decadence are replaced by London villainy. But if there is a star, it is Tara Hugo's torch-carrying Jenny, who unites the show's sexual and satirical elem ents in the scene where she proclaims MacHeath her idol of manhood before betraying him yet again.

In Slavs Tony Kushner offers a concise history of the collapse of the Soviet Union, from first generation Marxism through stagnation and bureaucratic corruption to environmental catastrophe in 90 minutes flat, including an Elysian coda for two sadder butwiser apparatchiki. The surprising thing is that Kushner seems to have all the time in the world to cover the ground. When one geriatric deputy recommends a great leap forward, Richard Mayes stops the show for a prolonged leaping display before expiringfrom a heart attack. When Ron Cook (as a Mos- cow bureaucrat visiting Siberia) meets a little girl in a doctor's waiting-room he spends minutes over fruitless hello's before discovering she is a radiation victim who cannot speak.

There is no plot; episodes are simply laid side to side, leaving you to draw ironically despairing conclusions. Matthew Lloyd's resplendently cast production reveals not so much a political play as an explosion of heartfelt outrage, reaching its climax in the insensate denunciation of the system by Annette Badland as the girl's mother.

Playing in repertory with Stephen Jeffreys' The Libertine, Max Stafford-Clark's production of Etherege's The Man of Mode presents an almost identical stage picture: the same composite set and simplified 17th-century costume (Peter Hartwell), and the sameemphasis on physical lust in place of decorative spectacle. David Westhead - Rochester in the first play - continues his grating, priapic performance as Etherege's Dorimant, who emerges as a fictional extension of this "devil who has something of the angel not yet defaced in him".

Visit this comedy for laughs and you will be put off by its arid, ill-natured intrigue. View it as study of human behaviour limited to sex, greed and revenge and it becomes engrossing; even, on occasion, funny. In stripping it down to the essentials, Stafford-Clark paradoxically also reveals its intense theatricality. What brands Sir Fopling Flutter (Tim Potter) as a fool among his fellow rakes is that he is a hopeless performer. Those, like Amanda Drew's Harriet and Jason Wat-kins's Medley, who underst and the game, are constantly acting, assuming joke voices, giving each other stage directions and analysing each others' performances. Thanks to Katrina Levon and a superb Cathryn Brad- shaw as Dorimant's discarded mistresses, the show also arouses stron g and unsentimental sympathy for those whose acting skills collapse under the pressure of desire.

In The Boat Plays, the Gate offers an enthralling introducton to the unknown world of Portuguese drama through the work of its 16th-century founder, Gil Vincente. In an auditorium itself converted into a boat, you watch successions of departed spirits waiting to be wafted into paradise or ferried over the Styx to hell. The simple devotional scenario is amplified by a marvellous translation of theology into character and situation: most of all in the case of Tony Curran as a bedraggled, wittily grouchingDevil. Whatever his metaphysical status, he remains first and foremost a boatman touting for customers, the richer the better. "All I need, another f---ing shepherd!" he says (in David Johnston's zippy translation) shortly before being rewarde d with a line of bejewelled sinners, including the Pope. Happily they escape him; as they strip off their regalia and queue up for salvation to the sound of Palestrina it is as though the heavens are opening.

`The Threepenny Opera': Donmar, WC2, 071-369 1732. `Slavs': Hampstead, NW3, 071-722 9301. `The Man of Mode': Royal Court, SW1, 071-730 1745. `The Boat Plays': Gate, W11, 071-229 0706.