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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)