THE CRITICS: THEATRE: It's a jungle out there

Suddenly Last Summer Comedy, London Candide Olivier, London Kes West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

No doubt Lady Bracknell, for whom three addresses inspired confidence, would approve of London theatre managements finding themselves second and third homes. The Royal Court is at the Ambassadors and the Duke of York's; the National at the Lyceum and the Duchess; the Almeida at the Albery; and last week, the Donmar returned to the Comedy: not a very apposite choice for Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer, which teeters between tragedy and schlock.

After his disastrous Antony and Cleopatra, director Sean Mathias teams up again with two actresses from previous successes: Rachel Weisz, whom he directed in Design For Living, and Sheila Gish, whom he directed in Les Enfants Terribles. In the Donmar's revival, they play two roles made famous by Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn in the 1958 movie. Weisz plays Catherine, the young woman in institutional care (the Taylor role), and Gish plays the avenging mother (the Hepburn role), protecting the memory of her recently deceased son. For his sake, Gish wants Weisz to undergo a lobotomy: if the operation doesn't prevent Weisz telling stories about her son and his death, then at least no one will believe her.

Tim Hatley's design gives us a sculptural jungle of pale, fecund plants in front of a New Orleans mansion. Within seconds, half the plants rise from the stage (only to descend at the end). It is the one moment when this production retreats from excess.

This is the summer of 1936, and beneath the thin veneer of civilisation savage forces are at work: Sheila Gish's velvety, regal Mrs Venable has invited a dapper young doctor over (the Montgomery Clift role) to offer him money for his hospital, if he does the requisite surgery. As Dr Cukrowicz, Gerald Butler grows in interest, as his interest grows in his patient. Weisz is extremely good as Catherine: she looks as petrified as the plants. With an earnest face and vulnerable eyes that can turn inwards, she plausibly relives the fateful episode (cannibalism on a beach). Weisz combines the insistence of the neglected with a natural, unforced energy that's first-rate.

But it's not civilisation that reveals its thin veneer so much as Williams's characters. They appear as phantoms from his personal mythology: frail victim; pretty young man; dragon-like mother, seething (in Gish's performance) with poison; philistine brother. Brittle and overblown, we might be in some Gothic pantomime for grown-ups.

Weisz is worth the price of a ticket, but even when Noel Coward saw Taylor, Hepburn and Montgomery Clift in the roles ("beautifully acted", as he noted in his diary) it was Williams "at his worst".

The National's new production of Candide opens with one of the weakest entrances I've seen. Simon Russell Beale walks on to the Olivier stage and stands and says nothing for a few minutes. He listens to Leonard Bernstein's overture, changing his expression every few seconds, as if contemplating the idea of (just possibly) composing a satirical novella about the influence of Leibniz and German optimism.

My image of Voltaire comes from Jean Huber's painting on the cover of the Penguin Candide, where the skinny shanks of the great French wit appear from beneath his nightshirt. Beale is the physical opposite to Voltaire: one is convex, the other concave. But that isn't the problem. Beale narrates the story with a bitter emphasis. In terms of tone, this is the charmless opposite to the throwaway nonchalance of Voltaire's prose.

Many people have worked on Candide (1758) since Lillian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein first started collaborating on it (as a rebuttal to McCarthyism) in the early 1950s. The original lyricist, Richard Wilbur, said it was a one-joke novel with 30 scenes. It's unique among musicals in that the central character is a proposition. It goes on a picaresque journey that takes in Westphalia, Bavaria, Holland, Paris, Vienna, Portugal, Spain, Montevideo, Paraguay, El Dorado and Venice. For a denouement, we learn that neither optimism nor cynicism is sufficient as a world view: life is full of good bits and bad bits.

John Caird's new production, which has been "assisted" (but not, in my view, assisted enough) by Trevor Nunn, proves Voltaire's point. It is full of good bits and bad bits. Daniel Evans is excellent as Candide, tossed around the world by fate. Evans's pallid face, ginger hair and light, plaintive voice is matched by an innocent ability to digest the simplest information in front of our eyes.

As Candide's love, Cunegonde, Alex Kelly sings "Glitter and be Gay" with a terrific mix of feelings. These two are well supported by Clive Rowe as the the sidekick Cacambo, Denis Quilley as the cynical Martin, Elizabeth Reniham as sharp, sparky Paquette, and Simon Day as a rigidly aristocratic Maximilian. All round, the ensemble singing is tight.

Caird's production succeeds best when the tension between the burlesque presentation and the horror of the events is at its most extreme. But this Candide does go on: the music remains witty and various, but the staging grows dull. Harold Prince's New York version ran one hour 57 minutes. This one runs three hours 15 minutes.

You could see Kes as a life in the day of the most famous boy in Barnsley who didn't grow up to be Michael Parkinson. Billy Casper wakes up in a single bed with his older brother, Jud, does the paper run, dozes in assembly and gets caned. That gets us to about nine am. Lawrence Till's skilful adaptation for the West Yorkshire Playhouse offers a slice of Northern Sixties realism. When we get to the English class (where they're talking about fact and fiction) and Billy talks about his kestrel, the play spins out, and in Natasha Betteridge's highly effective staging, classroom desks become the Yorkshire countryside and the other schoolboys turn into a choric audience. Time and again, Betteridge' s production retains an authentic atmosphere while finding its own theatrical language.

Barry Hines's novel offers a series of sure-fire scenes. Without the bird, the second half relies on Billy's emotions and the 16-year-old film actor Raymond Pickard (who played opposite John Goodman in The Borrowers) has the right undernourished gauntness (emotional as well as physical) and the birdlike querulousness of a young Tom Courtenay. It's an attractive stage debut that works best when he does least. In the bigger speeches, as the play narrows, his voice flattens some of the emotions. But Hines's story retains an undeniable emotional pull.

`Suddenly Last Summer': Comedy, SW1 (0171 369 1731) to 17 July. `Candide': Olivier, SE1 (0171 452 3000) in rep. `Kes': West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113 213 7700) to 8 May.

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