Enter stage left, talking far too much

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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE two credits in the programme for Some Sunny Day that tell you most of what you need to know about it: one is a little note with the information "Mr Bark-Jones and Mr Everett's suntan acquired at: The Tanning Shop"; the other, heading the list, offers "Special thanks to Uri Geller".

Martin Sherman's latest, just premiered at Hampstead, is set in Cairo in the summer of 1942, in the couple of days preceding the second battle of El Alamein, with Rommel's army expected to enter the city any day and the European populace in the grip of a "Flap", with rumours and suspicion rife, and dismaying secrets floating in the air (literally: the British embassy has been burning files and partly incinerated scraps are showering down). Into this uncertain atmosphere Sherman introduces a rum mixture of characters, all of them talking too much: a jovial diplomat, formerly a minor literary novelist, embroiled in an affair with a prominent belly- dancer (that is, she is prominent, not her belly); his distraught, voodoo- practising wife; a soi-disant Russian duchess, who turns out to be a Polish lesbian Jew; and, at the centre, a romantic young officer and his lover, a Kiwi reporter.

The relationship between these two bronzed youths (David Bark-Jones and Rupert Everett) is the heart of the play - which is where the artificial tans come in. It's a relationship founded on passionate physical obsession: at one point, the restrained public-school boy blurts, "I could eat your pagan body" (an unpersuasive piece of emoting which Bark-Jones carries off very creditably); later, Everett's Kiwi waxes lyrical about his lover's upper arm. But it's curbed on the officer's side by his knowledge of the things (marriage, respectability) that are expected of him, and on the reporter's side by other reasons. It's impossible to discuss those in any detail without giving away the central revelation of the second act; on the other hand, it's hard to discuss the play without bringing in the dramatic effect of that revelation. Let's just say that it becomes all too apparent why Uri Geller was brought in.

In the second act, Sherman manages to overturn completely what has gone before. Some Sunny Day begins as a more or less naturalistic play about Cairo in wartime, perhaps not shockingly original - at times positively corny - but acutely and tenderly perceptive about people's emotions, theatrically astute and at times very funny. When Horatio, the novelist turned diplomat, first enters, blathering ecstatically about his belly-dancer, he seems a comically childish figure, his egotism brilliantly underplayed by Corin Redgrave; it's only when his wife (Cheryl Campbell) arrives on the scene, hysterical with grief over his betrayal and her humiliation, that it becomes clear just how self-centred he is. It's a shift of sympathies that leaves you moved by the characters' plight, while admiring the skill with which writer, actors and director handle it.

This naturalism is underpinned in Roger Michell's superb production by William Dudley's set, a convincing clutter of books and bric-a-brac, and a uniformly excellent cast (I've not mentioned Sara Kestelman, wirily eccentric as the "duchess", and Eddy Lemar as the fortune-telling servant, bemusedly observing the goings-on among his employers). But as emotions become more extreme, Sherman first pushes naturalism to its limits and then jettisons it altogether. The strategy is bold, the transfiguration of what has gone before literally jaw-dropping. But while you can sit back after the performance and appreciate at leisure the message that Sherman is putting across (and again, frustratingly, it's not something that can really be talked about without blowing the gaff) and the pathos of the situation he has set up, what's most apparent at the time is the bathos of the thing. In trying to turn the audience's preconceptions on their head, he's ended up capsizing the drama, and you end up leaving the theatre with flecks of indignant spittle on your lips. Still, nice try.

The collapse at the end of the RSC's Taming of the Shrew, which has just transferred to the Barbican, is of a different sort - a steep plunge from comedy into marital tragedy. It's not unusual for Katharina's final speech, extolling the virtues of wifely submission, to be played ironically, with some complicitous winking going on between her and Petruchio. Gale Edwards's production takes the irony even further, with Josie Lawrence treating that speech as something like a confession at a show-trial - a further piece of humiliation heaped on Katharina which leaves Michael Siberry's Petruchio curled up, abject at the way he has broken her proud spirit.

It's a novel reading, to me at any rate, and Lawrence carries it off very well. All the same, I'm not convinced. We're all in favour of flexibility of interpretation, naturally, but you can't help feeling that if Shakespeare had wanted this play to be a fable about the dangers of keeping your wife in order, he'd have made it a bit more obvious.

There are plenty of incidental pleasures - the way that Edwards leads up to the denouement by showing how closely Petruchio's shrew-taming methods (starvation, sleep deprivation, psychological disorientation) approach modern techniques of brainwashing; Lawrence's squeaky-voiced game-playing with her sister's suitors; and a batch of highly satisfactory supporting performances. Some of the jokes are laboured - Mark Lockyer's rock'n'roll Tranio could lose his falsetto rock-star routine, for a start - but it's an amiable, coherent version.

And so to Hammersmith, for the David Glass Ensemble's production of La Dolce Vita. When Marcello Mastroianni asked Federico Fellini for a script of the film, before shooting started, Fellini passed him a cartoon of a man with a huge penis, floating on his back, stealing a peep at the half-naked girls surrounding him. Before each day's filming, the stars were handed their lines and told that if they didn't like them, they would be rewritten.

Given the fluidity of Fellini's conception, it seems perverse to translate that film into a stage musical - which form is more tightly choreographed, less open to improvisation? Is it likely that the stars of this production were told to change their lines if they didn't like them? Given the clumping moon/ June, brother/mother, swear/despair kind of rhymes that Paul Sand's libretto lands them with, you assume not. Cliched rhymes, cliched mime (pouring drinks, strap-hanging on a bus, driving a car), cliched morals (these Roman socialites, they're not decadent - they're just lost souls): no collapse here. Nothing to collapse from.

'Some Sunny Day': Hampstead, NW3 (0171 722 9301); 'Taming of the Shrew': Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891); 'La Dolce Vita': Lyric, W6 (0181 741 2311).

Robert Butler is on holiday.