Labours of love

ON THE FRINGE
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The Independent Culture
In Frankly Scarlett (King's Head), the audience has to wait a long time to hear those famous words: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." And when they come, they're spoken not by Clark Gable but by an ineffectual errand boy. There isn't a lot of respect for Gone with the Wind in Peter Morris and Phillip George's immensely likeable farce about the casting of the Civil War epic, but that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of love on display: love for an old movie, love for an old theatrical genre, and love for some pretty old jokes ("The Yankees are never going to lick me..." cries the nymphomaniac Tallulah Bankhead, trying out the role of Scarlett O'Hara, "and they're the only ones that haven't").

It's 1938, and the hunt for a Scarlett to play opposite Gable's Rhett Butler is on. Enter the real Scarlett O'Hara (Sophie-Louise Dann), a kindergarten teacher so desperate to play the character who shares her name that she's mailed herself in a crate to producer David O Selznick (a gloriously shifty Peter Polycarpou). Selznick, though, is only interested in one thing, and it's not her acting.

In fact, all Hollywood seems to be on heat. Soon the poor girl's fighting off Katharine Hepburn, Bankhead, Bette Davis and a denture-wearing Clark Gable; and, to complicate matters, when Scarlett's redneck boyfriend Buford turns up he's the spitting image of Gable. Cue lots of unconscious bodies dragged into closets and, in Buford's case, sexual longing dragged out of the closet.

Frankly Scarlett was written around the talents of drag artist Earl Grey. To my ear, all four of his roles sound too much like Quentin Crisp. But perhaps that's no bad thing. As a star vehicle, this show might have been horribly camp. As a company piece, played at a furious pace, it's simply very funny.

Mad for Love (Riverside Studios) is Lope De Vega's unsettling comedy about two sisters finding a husband. Bookish Nise, we are told, is a palm: tall, graceful and exotic. Finea is an oak: coarse and thick. The play disturbs because you're never quite sure whether it's an anti-feminist morality tale or a 16th-century paean to girl power. For Finea, it turns out, is not as dumb as she seems. "Girls learn to pretend early out of love and fear," she tells her suitor Laurencio. In other words, she is smart enough to know when it pays to be stupid.

If De Vega had left it there, we'd know what the moral was. There is, however, something subtly discordant about the ending. On the surface, everything is resolved: four couples are to marry. Yet Finea has only hooked Laurencio by betraying her sister, and she couldn't have done it without a huge dowry. By contrast, Nise's marriage to the fickle Liseo seems a sorry compromise, not that she can expect much more. Having played the game and done her schoolwork, she's now seen as "over-educated".

John Farndon's period-dress, sandpit-set production could make more of the writing's ambiguities; and, though his verse translation sparkles in the detail, he should have cut De Vega's more purple passages. Despite a striking performance from Angela Koo as Finea, the pace is as sluggish as siesta-hour Madrid.

Spain makes a brief appearance in Last Bus from Bradford (Chelsea Centre), when our hero Tom's teenage girlfriend tells his mother she plans to go Interrailing there. She wants to go "off the beaten track", she says. "Oh, we did that," replies the formidable Maureen. "Spent six hours on a donkey track. My arse was red raw." The best thing about Tim Fountain's well-acted coming-of-age comedy is its bluff humour. Fountain undoubtedly has an eye for ridiculous but poignant detail. For example, Tom, the publican's son growing up in a Yorkshire pit village in the Eighties, has his first homosexual experience in a public toilet at Haworth, home of the Brontes.

What lets the play down is its construction. The love affair between Tom and his spiky best friend Spenner superficially resembles Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing, but Last Bus has none of that play's tautness. By the end, you feel that you've watched two stories inexpertly welded together: a Northern family comedy and a tale of gay awakening. And, frankly, you don't give a damn about either.

'Frankly Scarlett', King's Head, N1 (0171-226 1916) to 25 May; 'Mad for Love', Riverside Studios, W6 (0181-741 2255) to 11 May; 'The Last Bus from Bradford', Chelsea Centre, SW10 (0171-352 1967) to 17 May

Adrian Turpin

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