Edinburgh Festival theatre: It takes one to know one

Drummers Traverse, Edinburgh The Speculator Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh Nixon's Nixon Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh The Wake King's Theatre, Edinburgh
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The Independent Culture
When Simon Bennett was 20, he began a two-year sentence at HMP Winchester for burglary. While inside, he wrote poems and short stories. Last week, Out of Joint, the company that brought us Shopping and F--- -ing, premiered his first play, Drummers. After Edinburgh it moves to the West End and then tours. In a nice instance of moral relativism in advertising, the Drummers blurb says that it would be a crime to miss it.

A "drum" is a house and a "drummer" is a housebreaker. In Drummers, Ray gets released from prison and returns to house-breaking in south London. This time he takes along Barry, his younger brother. Ray and his mum aren't talking, Mum understandably doesn't want Barry following in Ray's footsteps. But Barry is a heroin addict. He needs the money.

The unique selling point of Drummers is that it offers an insider's view on committing crimes. At its most basic level it is more interesting to be on the side of the robbers than the robbed, and Bennett has more experience of this way of life than your average graduate in theatre studies. In this respect the director, Max Stafford-Clark, has a scoop on his hands. The dialogue is lively and authentic. We have the excitement of initiates entering an unfamiliar world and picking up new words along the way.

The characters are carefully drawn too: Peter Sullivan's Ray is sullen and threatening, Callum Dixon's Barry is edgy and trapped and Maggie McCarthy's mum battles with one son she's given up on and one she hasn't. I particularly liked Paul Ritter's unshaven, furtive Pete the fence, who shoots up between his toes.

But Bennett and Stafford-Clark miss a trick or two. Drummers is essentially a piece of genre entertainment - as serious, say, as the excellent Sopranos on Channel 4 - that has been upgraded to the duller climes of the issue play. Drummers offers us a glimpse of people with expertise and courage working in hazardous circumstances: it has the makings of an ironic version of the work play.

Bennett sets up some good scenes. In the middle of robbing a house in the country Ray insists on making a pot of tea and sitting down for a "meeting" with Barry. But then Bennett chooses the extremes of physical violence over the intricacies of psychological suspense.

Why did they pick this house? How did they get in? How do they know how long they've got? We're never told. The downside of writing from close personal experience is the loss of perspective and the gliding over of simple details. Stafford-Clark's precisely-staged production would gain from a more varied sense of off-stage life. A play about criminals draws energy from its ability to keep two worlds in the audience's mind: theirs and ours.

The young Scots playwright David Greig has the fastest growing reputation north of the border. The day I went to see his new play The Speculator there was an article in the Herald suggesting he run for political office. He's certainly the most prolific and artistically ambitious young playwright in Scotland. My only problem is that this play is doggedly banal and overblown.

Greig's subject in The Speculator is the way that "value" changes in relation to "demand". (Only in subsidised theatre could this be treated as news.) To demonstrate this sophomoric point Greig constructs a theatrical essay on the theme that is full of perfectly valid and unsurprising observations. Beauty is a quality that loses its value. Banks are institutions that only survive if we all believe in the fictional value of money. A financier is a speculator in the same way as a playwright: they both attempt to will something into existence. Scene after scene illustrates an aspect of this multi-faceted subject. You can play the game yourself. The first step probably is to get hold of a copy (as Greig did) of Frozen Desire, James Buchan's widely praised book on the meaning of money. Then type "value" into an internet search page and hit "return".

The Speculator takes place in Paris in 1720. Greig contrasts the lives of the French playwright Marivaux with Scots financier John Law. There is no imaginative grasp of the period. Anachronisms and contemporary idiom are encouraged. Across the two and three-quarter hours, Greig makes few concessions in terms of subtext, nuance or tension. Each point is ticked off. Philip Howard's portentous staging recalls the post-Nickleby shows that would tour art centres in the mid-1980s. David Rintoul is impressive as the all-powerful financier Law. But if you want an example of fluctuating values consider the people who paid pounds 30 each for a ticket and left in the interval.

A far more resourceful and imaginative use of historical figures can be seen in the UK premiere of Nixon's Nixon. On the night of 7 August 1974, Henry Kissinger was called in for a three-hour meeting with Richard Nixon at the White House and the next day Nixon became the only US President to resign from office. What did they talk about? In Nixon's Nixon, Russell Lees gives a funny and fiery version of the events that seems entirely legitimate. We don't for a second believe that these two actually said any of what we are hearing but we can't believe they didn't cover very similar ground. In this vigorous two-hander, Keith Jochim's Nixon is a jowly, histrionic figure who keeps moving between friendliness and hostility. Tim Donoghue's Kissinger is a neat, composed, stubborn figure whose main concern is that Gerald Ford doesn't give his job to Alexander Haig. In some of the funniest sequences they recall their meetings with Brezhnev and Chairman Mao by acting the roles. Unlike Nixon on that fateful night, the show itself could afford to chill out early on and establish a firmer level of realism before it goes over the top. Lees's play proves conclusively that when they're in a tight spot politicians run wilder scenarios through their minds than the most fertile of Hollywood screenwriters.

Tom Murphy's excellent play The Wake opened at the Abbey, Dublin in January last year and played a week at this year's Edinburgh International Festival. It's a powerful example of an anecdotal story that resonates broadly for an entire population. In The Wake, Vera, played as a compelling and enigmatic figure by Jane Brennan, returns from the States. The American Dream has been an illusion for her and she eventually found work as a hooker. Her life was sustained by the idea of her family back home. In Patrick Mason's poised and absorbing production, Vera's return allows Murphy to strip away at the consoling sentiments to show a family riven with greed and pettiness and a crushing sense of propriety. Brennan's catalytic impact on an ex-boyfriend and a brother-in-law leads to a series of impressively original scenes. I hope it goes to Broadway.

'Drummers': Traverse (0131 228 1404) to 29 Aug; New Ambassadors, WC2 (0171 836 6111) 1 Sept to 9 Oct. 'Nixon's Nixon': Assembly Rooms (0131 226 2428) to 30 Aug; Bridewell, EC4 (0171 936 3456) 7-25 Sept