ON THE FRINGE

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The Independent Culture
Courtroom drama doesn't stand a chance when it has to compete with reality these days. No script-writer could have bettered the falls of Aitken and OJ Simpson, while the President of the United States of America may be forced to disclose the contents of his pants to Paula Jones's lawyers. Against this background, Inherit the Wind (BAC), Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee's classic 1951 drama about about a Tennessee schoolmaster tried for teaching Darwinism in 1925, is revived for the first time in Britain in three decades. If it creaks, we should remind ourselves that it was written nine years before To Kill a Mockingbird bagged its place as the archetypal Deep South courtroom drama. Jonathan Aitken was still in shorts, and OJ hadn't yet started school.

As the Steam Industry's bustling, preposterously big production (30-strong) shows, they did things differently then. For a start, they weren't afraid of an issue play with clearcut heroes and villains. Representing the defence, slim, young Chicago lawyer Henry Drummond. For the prosecution, self-serving Tennessee politico (and fatso) Matthew Harrison Brady. When Hollywood filmed it, Spencer Tracy played Drummond. An ageing Fredric March portrayed Brady. I rest my case.

Not that the subject of the trial admits much argument for your average audience in 1997. Brady defends the traditional creationist belief that the world was created by God at 9am on 23 October 4004 BC, a position that even Kavanagh QC would have problems arguing in court. Drummond shoots into an empty goal, asking, "Is that Standard Eastern Time or Rocky Mountain Time?"

Caught in the crossfire between the creationists and the Darwinists is the minister's daughter, Rachel. Her beloved is in the dock, while her father is preaching hellfire for the heretic at candlelit prayer meetings. Cue a spindly sub-plot about divided loyalties.

Inherit the Wind is not a subtle play. It may not have a torchlit procession of Klansmen, chitterlings or a lynching (where are all the blacks in this town?) but it's loath to let a good ol' boy cliche go by. It is also (did I forget to mention?) tremendous fun.

Phil Willmott's production breezes along like a musical without songs. The action starts on the imposing central staircase at BAC where the residents of Hillsboro mingle with the audience, hawking lemonade and peanuts and waiting for failed presidential candidate Colonel Brady to ride to the rescue of the Holy Bible. This clears the way for Studio 2 to become a courtroom (nicely designed by Rupert Tebb, with a faded plaster Stars and Stripes dominating one wall). Hoydens sit among the punters, hollering and tutting and stopping just short of spitting tobacco.

Done with any less gusto it could have been a calamity. Instead it's as hokily enjoyable as Calamity Jane.

Daddy Come Home, another part of BAC's Season of "American" drama, is hokey in quite a different way. That "American" is in quotes because the playwright Noli isn't from the US. His is one of those stories of blue- collar, mid-Americana that's meant to be edgy and dark, but feels instantly - almost comfortingly - familiar. Fortysomething Beth (Jean Stanley) is shacked up with toyboy David, when her husband Bill (the excellent Chas Bryer) gets out of jail and comes a-knocking.

Sam Shepard and David Lynch have made careers out of this sort of scenario as, more recently, has Tracy Letts (Killer Joe, Bug). So what exactly is Noli attempting here? Pastiche? Homage? Daddy Come Here isn't knowing enough for that. The only new ingredient Noli brings to an old recipe is dash of Greek myth, and that's stirred in so recklessly that it's hard not to laugh at the play's violent climax.

The playwright himself directs at a snail's pace, and whatever intensity and intimacy there might be in a studio production gets lost in BAC's main house. The end result is more like British beef than American Buffalo. `Inherit the Wind' runs to 13 July; `Daddy Come Home' to 17 July at the BAC, London SW11 (0171-223 2223)

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