Popcorn tastes best the first time around

THEATRE
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The Independent Culture
I Saw Ben Elton's play Popcorn when it premiered at Nottingham last year and loved it. The premise, for a start, was a cracker: it put in the same room those who commit crimes with those who glamorise them. A film director, Bruce Delamitri, returns to his Beverly Hills home the night he has won an Oscar and discovers that the Mall Murderers - wanted for killings across four states - have moved in. It turns out they are his No1 fans. After the interval Elton caps this device by establishing a complicity between the killers, the media, American society and, by extension, the Nottingham audience.

As social comment and social comedy, it worked. Last week Popcorn arrived in the West End. Elton has rewritten 20 per cent of the play and recast it. OK, only a critic or a friend of Ben Elton would go and see it twice. But some plays, like Art, its West End rival, deserve another viewing. Popcorn, surprisingly, did not.

Popcorn is a comedy of issues. It lines up topics with the eagerness of a Newsnight producer. Elton attacks the culture of blame, where no one takes responsibility for anything. "No matter how guilty, you can still be innocent," one of the killers explains. Elton attacks the way people make money in Hollywood by putting a rock soundtrack to murder and selling it as sex and style. Elton attacks the left, the right and the centrefold.

If it is complexity of character that makes a play worth seeing twice, then Elton's characters, not unlike Bernard Shaw's, look as if they have been stuck up there to kick ideas around. You don't need five minutes in the company of the director's wife Farrah, (Debora Weston), a monument to silicon and cellulite, or Brooke, the Playboy model (Megan Dodds) who insists she is an actress, to see that they have interior lives to equal that of the Oscar statuette.

Which unfortunate man heaps abuse on a murderer without knowing the guy has a gun tucked into his back pocket? Who pulls the trigger? Who lives, who dies? Elton manipulates the twists and turns, the mistaken identities and status reversals with the finesse you would expect from a TV comedy writer. But a stage comedy has to capture its audience, instil a buzz, a level of expectancy, and then - this is the test - hang on to that energy for every second that remains. Once gone, you can never pull it back.

Elton's disadvantage is his talent. He has 101 insights to share about sex, violence, movies and society. You can whizz through these bits in Popcorn the novel. In the theatre, tension drifts off the stage like dry ice. Someone, either director Laurence Boswell, or producer Phil McIntyre, should have sat him down with a blue pencil: "Ben! You've made the point! And even if you haven't, we ain't got the time!"

When the action in Popcorn moves forward, you feel the West End has found its resident playwright. No one else has the bottle to join the destinies of Delamitri, an Oliver Stone/Tarantino figure played by Danny Webb with a high-wire mix of energy and weariness, with the white-collar psychotics, played with blitheness and ferocity by Patrick O'Kane and Dena Davis. Elton has the gumption and the know-how. Plus he can do the jokes. It's only when the action slows up that you feel as if you're stuck with the Motormouth himself.

Bill Kenwright transfers the Manchester Royal Exchange's production of Lady Windermere's Fan to the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where the gilt proscenium stage fills you with a sense of the 1890s. Elsewhere Braham Murray's production has the look of a fake Rolex. Lady Windermere's Fan, the first comedy Wilde wrote (after Vera and Duchess of Padua), has touches of melodrama, but it needs a stateliness and buoyancy that transcends the creaks. There are sections, like in act III when the men return from their club, when the talk resembles a book of epigrams: "Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality"; "Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes". The spontaneity flows from self-assurance.

As Mrs Erlynne, the woman recovering from disgrace, Gabrielle Drake glides on and off with elegance, though she slips further than she might into tragedy. Rebecca Johnson impresses with her sincerity as the puritanical Lady Windermere, and as the Duchess of Berwick, Rosalind Knight catches the lordliness and disdain. When it comes to the men, however, the cast have too many styles and not enough style.

In Language Roulette by Daragh Carville, which opened in Belfast last year and has transferred to the Bush, a friend returns from abroad during the ceasefire in 1994 for a reunion with mates in a Belfast pub. It's a pound-a-pint night, and as the tequilas follow the Guinnesses the truth comes out about how these six figures, bunched together on a banquette in the corner, are linked. Since the cast are the only people in the pub, Tinderbox company director Tim Loane has overestimated the value of realism here. When Carville exhumes the secrets, Language Roulette resembles plenty of other plays. When Carville immerses the action in the rituals, games, insults, tomfoolery and backchat of this young Ulster group, we cheer the arrival of people we are meeting for the first time.

'Popcorn': Apollo, W1, 0171 494 5070; 'Lady Windermere's Fan': Haymarket, W1, 0171 930 8800; 'Language Roulette', Bush, W12, 0171 743 3388.

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