FRINGE / To France in search of warmth

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The Independent Culture
A WHITE ROOM, two white chairs and a cast of two: John Godber starts with next to nothing. Quite something to pull a full-length comedy out of that. In April in Paris (Assembly Rooms), he meets the challenge with ease - too much ease, if anything. This warm-hearted, funny play is relentlessly safe.

Al and Bet, married for 10 years, and heartily sick of each other, win a holiday to Paris. Considering that Al is such a misery, the trip brings out a smorgasbord of emotions. Large, blinking and slow-moving, Mark Addy plays the different moods beautifully: suspicious, maudlin, downright unromantic. He's well-partnered by Amanda Orton as his wife, though she has some dauntingly cheery lines.

The weekend in Paris revs up a marriage made in Hull. The set changes from blank white to the full colours of Impressionism. It's too good to be true and, for all the chat, the questions you want Al to ask Bet and Bet to ask Al never get answered.

It's unlikely that April in Paris would cross the Channel as happily as its characters. As with A Year in Provence the jokes about the Englishman abroad are for home consumption: she gets seasick on the ferry; he goes to a restaurant and, when he goes to the loo, stands dumbfounded, looking at the hole in the ground. Routine stuff, this, that Godber (who also directs) does with confidence. A little less might help.

Two aspiring comedians move into a dingy flat, stick up a photo of Morecambe and Wise, and pull out their typewriters. Ben Miller and Simon Godley couldn't lose when they were writing and rehearsing their new play. However badly things went, it would provide them with more material. Huge (Pleasance) - co-written with Jez Butterworth - is a comedy about collaborating.

When they visualise their career path, going to Edinburgh is one of the steps. But Huge isn't just an in-joke for Fringe comedians. There's a very funny relationship here: this is a marriage and a divorce, and the gradations are well worth following.

There's a deliciously dark edge to the dialogue which revels in paranoia, spite and embarrassment. With his specs and stooping figure, Godley has a lovely, relaxed presence, at its best when he is being tentative. After last year's Gone with Noakes, Miller continues his line of worrying obsessives. Tight- lipped, superior and manic, he can suddenly turn puce with frustrated ambition. Huge is all too believable.

The programme for Burning Bright (French Institute) says that it was written by John Steinbeck and adapted and directed by Damien Gray. Watching the Workhouse Theater production, without having read the original book, I was amazed at how well the adaptation worked. Here is a fierce drama that, unlike so many stage adaptations, does not dissipate into little scenes with each actor playing half a dozen characters. It has four characters and three scenes, and everything important happens on stage.

Thomas V Owen plays Joe Saul, a man who is sterile, but doesn't know it, with a gravelly voice that suggests he is making up for looking younger than 50. He'd do better not to. His sexy young wife, Mordeen (Bonnie Burgess), has a change of heart when she decides, as an act of love for Joe, to have a child by the aggressive Victor (Scott Winters). As Friend Ed, witnessing this dodgy development, Todd Butera is a picture of American decency.

This new American company has to cope with the cramped conditions of the French Institute. There are clumsy moments - slides are projected with quotes from the book, a large Christmas tree arrives through the venue's doors. Nor is it easy to believe in a heavily pregnant woman when she has already appeared with most of her clothes off. Still, this is a highly charged evening. Steinbeck set out to create a 'play-novelette' that could either be read or performed. Burning Bright is that welcome thing: a novel with the dynamic of a play.

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