LONDON FRINGE / Playing unhappy families: Robert Hanks reviews a dark Cenci, a harsh Dead Set and an ironic Open Couple

TOLSTOY's line was, roughly, that all happy families are pretty much alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The fringe only gives you the chance to judge the second half of the proposition, by presenting lots of fabulously miserable families; but it's true, there is plenty of variety in their misery.

The brand of family unhappiness on display in The Cenci, at the Lyric Studio, London, is both melodramatic and, for a play written in the 19th century and set in Renaissance Rome, oddly modern. It isn't simply that the central act of Shelley's tragedy, the wicked Count Francesco Cenci's rape of his daughter, Beatrice, echoes contemporary concerns; but her reaction, mixing disbelief with anger, unable to name the deed, seems strikingly authentic.

Jocelyn Denford's 'revision' of the play - Shelley's only completed stage-work - cuts it from four hours to just over two; even so, the first half moves slowly, and the energy level only picks up after the interval, when the count is murdered at the instigation of his family. Evidently, Shelley isn't one of those dramatists who find evil more attractive than virtue. The count ought to be a striking villain; he certainly has some magnificent moments, especially the scene in which he announces to a banquet that two of his sons have been killed, and proposes a celebratory toast.

Occasionally there are hints of complexity behind the badness - at one point, he talks of himself as God's 'scourge'; at other times, you have the impression that his acts are more a form of resistance to God, an assertion of free will. For the most part, though, he's just plain bad, and Sydnee Blake's production goes along with that; he's dressed in sombre blacks and greys and, as played by Craig Pinder, has a wolfish leer set more or less permanently on his face.

After he's gone, though, and the stage is left to the good guys, the pace bucks up enormously. Shelley seems to find it easier to write about people with consciences than without; much of the play's action takes the form of monologues in which the Cenci children and Orsino, Beatrice's priest lover, agonise about the rights and wrongs of murdering a villain.

Beatrice, in particular, is a powerful and far from conventional heroine. She's a very masculine woman, while the feebleness and vacillation of her brothers and her lover makes them seem, by comparison, stereotypically feminine; as played by Louise Bangay, all righteous indignation and rippling muscles, it's hard to think of her as a victim of her father's crimes. Her anger and shame seem to have less to do with the bestiality of her father's incestuous rape than with a sense that she was the loser in a battle of wills: it isn't justice that interests her so much as having her own way.

With her father out of the way, she dominates the action easily: when she and her fellow plotters - Orsino, her brother Giacomo and her stepmother - are hauled before a papal court to answer charges of parricide, she cows the presiding cardinal into accepting her innocence. The servant who did the deed implicates her in the murder after being tortured to the point where death seems an attractive alternative; but she cajoles and bullies him into retracting his confession, and in the end he goes back to the rack rather than outface her any further. She presents a pretty dilemma to the audience: on the one hand, we know that she was morally right to assist in killing her father, and we want her to get off; but given that we also know she's guilty, her protestations of innocence ring hollow, and her admonitions to her family not to weaken in the face of questioning start to seem bullying and vicious - she is, you recognise, her father's daughter.

The Cenci is a flawed and deeply grim play, the blackness only occasionally relieved by tiny sparks of humour; when the papal legate investigating the count's murder asks his youngest son, Bernado, if anybody had an interest in his death, the boy flashes him a bewildered look: 'I know of none who had not.' This rare production by Damned Poets Theatre Company manages to hint at its quality, and has touches of ingenuity (at the back of Bruce Gallup's neo-classical set, with its suggestions of Fascist Italy, you notice that the paint on a door is distressed to give the impression of screaming faces). Still, there are dreadful longueurs, and it's a treat for the Shelley student, rather than a good evening out for all the family.

It would be equally hard to recommend The Dead Set unequivocally as family entertainment, but for very different reasons. William Johnston's harsh comedy, at the New Grove near Euston, London, is set on Christmas Day in the Allan house. The entire family is gathered in front of the television set: nice housewife Sophie, her frustrated husband, Clive, and their morbid teenage daughter, Caroline; Sophie's two brothers - wideboy Daniel and weaselly Jack, who talks in catch-phrases ('Mmmm, Betty - Don't panic] Don't panic] Down, Shep]'); Daniel's attractive, posh girlfriend, Amanda; and the persistently vegetative Gran for whom, as Clive says, 'the final credits have rolled'. It's a contented, ordinary Christmas scene. And then the television packs up.

After that the play turns into a Lord of the Flies for the video age, as the family plummets into barbarism and madness. Their descent is temporarily halted by the arrival of the television star Michael Cawber, who lives next door and has popped in for a Yuletide drink. But only temporarily: Amanda, it turns out, has long nursed a passion for Cawber - she even named her dog after him - and new chains of sexual obsession and jealousy start to emerge.

This is all done persuasively enough to make you think again about the potential for violence in your own relatives, which is why it might not be the ideal family show. There is a kind of theme lurking in the story, to do with television's soothing power to mask anger and neurosis, and the dangers of a society over-dependent on that power. But mostly it's just extremely funny, uniformly well acted, neatly structured - with a brilliantly engineered manic climax just before the interval and another towards the end - and tightly paced by the director, Brian Mitchell.

The final unhappy family is Dario Fo and Franca Rame's two-hander, The Open Couple, now playing at the Camden Studio Theatre. In a mixture of flashback and straight narrative, the couple describe how the wife was driven to attempt suicide by her husband's philandering; eventually, she accepted his proposal that they become an open couple, both free to play around. And - this is the surprising part - it turns out that when she gets a man, he can't stand it. Ironic, eh?

To be fair, the play isn't meant to be so much a battle of the sexes, a la Rock Hudson and Doris Day, as a comment on the difficulties of matching radical politics and real life. Stuart Hood's translation tries to make that clear by translating Italian politics into English terms, which doesn't really work; but Mette Udsholt's design helps to make sense of the play by placing it firmly in the Seventies. If it's flared hipsters and stacked heels you want, go, by all means. For plausible drama, try a night in with the family.

'The Cenci' is at the Lyric Studio, London W6 (Box office: 081-741 8701). 'The Dead Set', New Grove Theatre, London NW1 (071-383 0925). 'The Open Couple', Camden Studio Theatre, London NW1 (071-916 4040). All to 11 September.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone