ROUND-UP / Chemistry lessons

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
There's a nice - and presumably intentional - irony in the programme note Dalia Ibelhauptite supplies for her production of The Impresario from Smyrna at the Old Red Lion in Islington: as a Moscow- trained Lithuanian working with a thoroughly British cast she is, she says, 'convinced that when you bring Eastern and Western theatre traditions together you can create truly exciting work'.

The irony is that the incompatibility of East and West is one of the premises behind Goldoni's comedy. The plot concerns the efforts of a Turkish businessman, the impresario of the title, to assemble an opera company in Venice to entertain the Europeans in his home-town.

The theatrical world he has entered is one where every greeting proclaims duty and humility ('Servo', 'Servitor', 'A votre service', 'Your most unspeakably devoted', 'I am your most obedient'); but the courtesy disguises a greedy egotism and trivial viciousness. Accustomed as he is to the comparatively straightforward ethics of business, the impresario is soon overwhelmed by the purring and clawing of the singers, as they fight for top billing.

Within the play, the result is disastrous; in real life, though, Ibelhauptite's dark reading is a minor triumph (and bodes well for her forthcoming production of Goldoni's Mirandolina at the Lyric Hammersmith). There are plenty of easy laughs going here, but except for Dexter Fletcher's preening, would- be gallant castrato, the cast plays against the grain of the humour. There's an uncomfortable edge of suppressed violence in, particularly, John Michie's professedly reasonable fixer and Suzanna Hamilton's ageing, peremptory prima donna that keeps the tension, and hence the laughs, going.

The chemistry of Cambridge Theatre Company's production of Uncle Silas, at the Lyric Hammersmith, is the reverse. Mike Alfreds' adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's classic chiller could be indigestibly gloomy and menacing if it weren't for a streak of grotesque humour - mostly supplied by Sam Cox's malevolent French governess, a captivating mixture of the infantile and the murderous who takes her charge to play in old graveyards ('I am Madame La Morgue - I will present you my friend, Monsieur Le Cadavre and Mademoiselle Squelette'), and shifts from torture to petting without turning a hair.

The acting is so consistently good here, the doubling of roles done so effortlessly, that you almost don't notice how good Anne Marie Duff is as the persecuted young Maud. It's impressive enough that she sustains the entire narrative; but what really marks out her performance is the shrewd shift, in the later stages, from a Victorian ideal of girlish innocence to cynicism and self-possession. The change captures superbly the logic of Alfreds' production, in which the thing that's dramatised most clearly is the inadequacy of innocence - easily faked and, when genuine, not far removed from ignorance.

The virtues of this production are hard to enumerate - not a problem with Patrick Garland's Chichester production of Pygmalion. This has precisely two virtues, which are: 1) Peter Bowles, and 2) Freddie Jones. As Higgins, Bowles projects exactly the right sense of eccentricity self- consciously on display, scoring off people and enjoying their shock; and he does this with a casual naturalism that isn't easily achieved in Chichester's awkward acoustic. By contrast, Jones is a low-key Alfred Doolittle - not the comic turn you might expect, but instead giving the play its moral heart with his complaints against middle-class morality (especially topical in the week that the Prime Minister launched his attack on beggars).

Against these advantages, you have to balance Fiona Fullerton's thoroughly vacuous Eliza. 'I can't turn on your soul,' Higgins tells her, and neither could Garland. Still, I had a nice day out.

'The Impresario from Smyrna' continues to 18 June, Old Red Lion, St John's St, London EC1 (071-837 7816). 'Uncle Silas', to 11 June, Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (081-741 2311). 'Pygmalion', to 14 July, Chichester Festival Theatre, West Sussex (0243 781312)

Comments