Manhattan murder mystery

Theatre
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The Independent Culture
ONE RESULT of the boom in plays by women is that audiences are no longer being told the same old story. Sometimes this means that there is no story at all; which was my complaint against the earlier work of Phyllis Nagy. But in Disappeared she certainly has a good story to tell; and one that takes you on the writer's own adventure of working out a personal obsession through an unpre- dictable narrative.

Dread and longing are at the root of Nagy's account of a girl who walks out of a New York bar never to be seen again. Perhaps she was murdered; perhaps she chose to disappear. We never discover what really happened, but that is not the play's question. What it does examine is the hunger for escape, as experienced in the lower depths of Manhattan. Escape to anywhere - into the lost paradise of the 1960s, into celebrity or foreign lands, or into the experimental identities of the open- ing scene. Here, in a run-down bar, the girl, Sarah (Alexandra Gilbreath), acts out the tough, leather-jacketed character of a long-lost pop idol, to the fascination of the only other drinker - a small, tight-faced figure in an outsize tuxedo. A self-styled "enertainment attorney", Rupp looks ridiculous, but he responds to every insult with a courteous assumption of superiority - and it is finally he who leads her out into the night.

Nagy reserves this moment for the end of the play, by which time it has accumulated a rich weight of information and ambiguity. Sarah divides her life between a demon mother and a travel-agency job which afflicts her with tantalising visions of the outside world. Rupp, we learn, works in a thrift shop, and escapes this pariah role by wearing second-hand clothes and assuming their former owners' identity. In one stunning scene, he presents himself at Sarah's desk - now in the role of a Crippen-like "bankruptcy trustee" - to book a holiday. He cannot decide where; so, by random choice, his vacation is confined to the Holland Tunnel.

The full implications of this scene only appear later on, when it emerges that Rupp haunts travel agencies because only there will women talk to him. Conversely, the meeting awakens Sarah's love for her peculiar customer as a man with "as little idea of where he wants to go as I have, and the only one who could appreciate my desire to vanish".

The continually leapfrogging plot chronicles Rupp's interrogation as a murder suspect. As in the opening scene, Rupp behaves as though he is in control. Kerry Shale's hypnotic performance bespeaks a life's memory of humiliation and defeat from which he has learnt to shield himself by refusing to admit he is the target. He knows he makes his employer's flesh crawl, but persists in inviting her to dinner. He knows he is in danger of arrest, but takes advantage of this to interrogate the detective. As a result, a steaming mass of hatred and frustration arises from the other characters: the detective who loathes his job, the abandoned mother screaming for satisfaction. All of them would love to go missing, if only they dared. Nagy's own production does honour to this intrepidly imaginative play.

For a pastiche of Noel Coward, Phil Willmott's Venom is short of witty lines. But that seeming inadequacy only points to the real purpose of the author's production - which is to take the lid off the treachery, backbiting, and ruthless self-interest of its subject. Clive Gosling, a Deptford-born matinee idol, is a fictional contemporary of Coward; and the play dips in and out of Coward's life and works to show a smoking altar of human sacrifices committed in the cause of light entertainment. With an upcoming Broadway opening, Clive goes berserk when his leading lady (Tamsin Greig, deftly impersonating Gertrude Lawrence) retires into the arms of a muscular US Christian. Getting her back after the play flops forms one line of action; others are Clive's beastly treatment of an enamoured Prince of Wales, and his even crueller handling of an aspiring young playwright (shades of Roland Maule from Present Laughter), whose richly justified murder-attempts spur Clive to his most glittering achievements in off-stage intrigue and Machiavellian charm.

No Coward parody would be complete without a balcony scene.And Liz Putland's design springs a masterstroke when a sunset canopy hinges down over the hero's Surrey Versailles to reveal three hotel balconies for a complex denouement, restoring the good name of the well-made play. Clive's last conquest is a body-building Bavarian baron who tries to enlist him in the service of the Reich. "You want to take over the world," Clive demurs, "I only want to write light comedy." Graceful and mobile as a poisonous snake, Michael Granadge's performance lacks animal magnetism; but, it is said, so did Coward himself.

The idea of coupling Shakespeare's last play with Edward Bond's drama of his retirement is theoretically appealing. In David Thacker's production, The Tempest and Bingo do precious little to illuminate each other; and that little is misleading. Translate Bond's rentier Shakespeare into Prospero (both played in identical Jacobean costume by Paul Jesson) and The Tempest becomes a protest against colonial land-enclosure; not to mention identifying a rabid underdog Ben Jonson with Caliban (Dominic Letts). Viewed separately, Bond's play survives more because of its iconoclastic audacity and internal Shakespearian criticism (with structural references to Lear and the Fool, and the disillusioned Timon) than its vilification of Elizabethan capitalism.

In The Tempest, Thacker's imagination takes off in a consummate display of theatre magic: amazing effects multiply on a stage that evidently holds no secrets. The opening offers the combined spectacle of the conjuring Prospero, the voyagers playing chess on a swaying ship's table, and Ariel (who speaks the show's first words) releasing the tempest from above. Overwhelmingly, the production belongs to Bonnie Engstrom's Ariel - a dusky sacramental dancer with invincible eye contact - and her fellow spirits, who transform themselves into Ferdinand's logs, the contents of Prospero's wardrobe, or whatever else is needed. In the most haunting episode, they ceremoniously invite the castaways to the magical banquet in the style of trusting islanders receiving a party of future colonists: a process that massively recharges their subsequent descent into snarling, vindictive frenzy. Here, perhaps, the show does make contact with Bond. Otherwise, the comedy and castaway scenes never rise above routine; and Jesson's stolid Prospero appears a magician only at the moment of his farewell to magic.

'Disappeared': Royal Ct Upstairs, 0171-730 1745. 'Venom': Drill Hall, 0171-637 8270. 'Bingo/Tempest': Young Vic, 0181-928 6363.

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