The Critics: After the bomb, a modern morality play

Hindle Wakes Manchester Royal Exchange Martin Guerre Leeds West Yorkshire Playhouse Arabian Nights Young Vic, SE1 house, Leeds Arabian Nights / Young Vic, London
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It was perhaps inevitable that, given the chance, Helena Kaut- Howson would allude to the IRA bomb that tore into the Manchester Royal Exchange in June 1996, leaving the theatre in ruins, the company homeless, and her admired production of Stanley Houghton's Hindle Wakes in abeyance. Her partially recast revival, which launches an ambitious season in the revamped main house, is bookended with an implicit and an explicit reference to the blast. At first, there's an almighty rumble that sounds ferociously man-made, before the words "There'll be no rain" pull you to the relative safety of overcast pre-First World War Lancashire. Then a similar noise underscores the final line, uttered by the play's snob, Mrs Jeffcote, for whom it's all turned out nice again: "It makes you feel there is something in Providence after all."

It is the only false note struck in an otherwise exemplary production. Buoyant though the Royal Exchange's artistic directors are - what with their lovely Lottery-enhanced facilities, their added studio space and an impressive two-year programme - it is a very warped logic that sees a 3,300lb bomb as part of some beneficent masterplan. But this in-jokey extra layer of meaning cancels out the sour aftertaste of Mrs Jeffcote's remark, which insensitively celebrates the net result of a sequence of crises triggered by the news of a young woman's death in a boating accident, during the "wakes" - the August bank holiday.

Houghton's 1911 comedy cocks an affectionate but appalled snook at the small-minded folk of Hindle, who seem to attach more importance to propriety than they do to life itself. The untimely demise of Mary, Fanny Hawthorn's friend and alibi, exposes the latter's secret liaison in Llandudno with Alan Jeffcote, an already-engaged playboy. Before you can say owt about trouble at mill, the fathers - old friends, but distanced by the employer-employee social chasm - are asserting their moral rights to be identified as authors of their offspring's fate. The mothers, meanwhile, cajole their nearest and dearest according to their own received notions of decorum.

The institution of no sex before marriage - or marriage promptly after sex - is now as obsolete as the manufacturing industries that once swelled Lancastrian pride. But the play is so well-crafted, carving intricate humour into the ugliest statements of self-interest, it doesn't seem dated.

Les Brotherston's all-grey design (curtains, table-cloths, lamp-shades, the factories - cheekily represented by a line of smoke-billowing models) provides an expressionist frame for Houghton's ahead-of-its-time, feminist- inflected realism. The set reinforces the sense that we continue to live in an age in which similar sexual conduct by men and women is painted differently, according to a black-and-white palette of bigotry.

The greying oldies are played to stiff-jointed perfection, particularly the two leads. Ewan Hooper's self-made Mr Jeffcote, eyes sealed up like vaults, looks every inch the man with a "pair of scales" for a heart, incapable of enjoying the luxury he has earned. As Mrs Jeffcote, Sue Johnston mingles the character's sly hauteur ("We went to Norway in June, you know") with an air of continual alarm that hilariously suggests how much that pride is threatened by her son's dalliance. Alan himself is treated to a performance of first-rate nonchalance from Pearce Quigley - when he asks his fiancee, Beatrice, to look on his affair as "something like getting tight", the inadvertent insincerity of his voice recalls Men Behaving Badly at its most unnervingly unreconstructed.

Over at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, every effort has been made to reconstruct the multi-million-dollar musical they call Martin Guerre. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's labour of love has undergone some extensive surgery, with the up-and-coming Irish director Conall Morrison and his choreographer sidekick David Bolger brought in to lend a hand. It's hard to know where exactly to apportion praise, but (and some of you may need to sit down when you read this), the result is a triumph. Well, as near as dammit.

This new, improved Guerre comes with added spleen. Any fears that Morrison was simply going to import the earthiness he used in his riotous adaptation of Patrick Kavanagh's Tarry Flynn are soon quashed. The young Martin is spat at by his superstitious neighbours and publicly flogged by the village priest for failing to consummate the marriage with Bertrande that has been arranged against his will, a humiliation that drives him out and crushes any capacity to love. It is this capacity which, the leaner, more urgently structured story argues, is crucial both to a sense of self and, as the local conflict between Protestants and Catholics becomes increasingly irrational, to anything approaching civilised society.

The defiant, defining solo "I'm Martin Guerre" - which recurs in various guises, and is echoed by the imposter Arnaud, after he has taken up with his former comrade-in-arms's wife - is a gloriously perverse signature tune. It draws your attention to a quality of absence, an emotional void. John Napier's elegant, minimalist design, with its wooden-planked rake and jagged backdrop, boldly reflects that emptiness. The actors, equally boldly, strive to fill it. And although there are hindrances - underexplained plot developments, some trite or indistinguishable numbers - they pretty much do. The quest for honesty led by Arnaud and Bertrande (Matthew Cammelle and Joanna Riding, both excellent) builds towards a final reprise of the stirring opening number "Live with Somebody You Love".

This age-old message also underpins the fantastic stories that Shahrazad (a mesmerising Sophie Okenedo) concocts for the murderous king in Dominic Cooke's adaptation of Arabian Nights at the Young Vic. The stories thrive on a less-than-harmonious accord between the sexes, and there's not a moment of monotony in two-and-a-half hours. The nine-strong ensemble flies around a circular sand-pit to a bazaar's worth of strange noises, transforming themselves into anything from neighing steeds to whispering boulders in the time it takes to flap a robe in the air. There is a stunning corpse resurrection, courtesy of magician Paul Kieve. But even without it, there are countless reasons why this Christmas show leaves the competition standing.

'Hindle Wakes': Manchester Royal Exchange (0161 833 9833), to 9 January. 'Martin Guerre': Leeds West Yorkshire Playhouse, to 13 February. 'Arabian Nights': Young Vic, SE1 (0171 928 6363), to 23 January.

Robert Butler returns next week.