Life for Mike is (bitter) sweet

Arts notebook
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The Independent Culture
The Monty Python team once imagined the third test match as directed by Ken Russell. Limbs spattered the pitch as the sound of leather on willow was followed by leather gorging flesh. My own fantasy is for Friends, which started its new series last night, to be directed by Mike Leigh. Instead of wit, sex appeal and pulchritude, we could have some properly British dysfunctional relationships, sexual hang-ups, and a case of eczema thrown in.

Perhaps Leigh had the same idea. I caught a preview screening of his next film Career Girls this week and, without giving too much away, it follows the progress of university friends, some on to careers and nuclear families, others to breakdown and on to the pavement. And yes, one of the girls has dermatitis.

What it does remind one is how arbitrary fate is in deciding who among us arriving at university a mess of neuroses and swirling hormones will go on to a form of respectability and who will fall by the wayside. As so often with Leigh, it is a comedy that keeps you awake nights. I commend him to the producers of Friends as guest director for an episode: "The one where Ross tears Rachel's haircut out by the roots".

One of the most tawdry pieces of legislation introduced by the Thatcher government, and never repealed by John Major for all his decency, was Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act, which made it illegal to "intentionally promote" homosexuality in schools. Since then, many have said that it is not worth getting worked up about as there have been no prosecutions and no one took any notice of it. But research this week by the redoubtable Jennifer Edwards, director of the National Campaign for the Arts, shows that theatre-in-education companies have been practising self-censorship by deliberately avoiding plays by gay writers and plays that portrayed gay relationships. The mind boggles a little at how these companies have managed to avoid the first category completely.

Nevertheless, as Ms Edwards told The Stage this week, "With young people who are trying to understand their own sexuality, the arts can play a useful role." The legislation emanated from the Department of the Environment, but with theatre-in-education a victim, Chris Smith, the Heritage Secretary and an openly gay MP, is surely the man to press urgently for the repeal of this small-minded law.

Simon Gray, who probably would like it to be made illegal to intentionally promote Stephen Fry, is returning to the West End stage. Having recovered from the trauma of Fry's exit from Cell Mates two years ago and the play's subsequent flop, he is back next month with Life Support, starring Alan Bates and directed by Harold Pinter, old-time collaborators unlikely to do a bunk. Gray will only say it is about "a man of letters, an accomplished embellisher of the uneventful". It only needs a second act trip to Bruges to start sounding very suspicious indeed.

Finding a new take on Romeo and Juliet is not easy after Baz Luhrmann's brilliant LA beach movie version. But Naxos talking books are about to come out with a fresh approach. Their recording, directed by Martin Sheen, stars Sheen himself and Kate Beckinsale as the lovers, a case of a Romeo and Juliet who actually live together in real life. Does this make for a passion enhanced by genuine love or dulled by breakfast-table familiarity? The former I'm sure, though I wouldn't mind hearing the arguments on the out-takes.

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