The Festival Critics: THEATRE / Resurrection and let-down

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FOR YEARS, the Edinburgh Festival has been announcing thematic drama programmes which then turn out to be fortuitous collections of available shows. This year, however, the thematic content is real. Brian McMaster has gallantly staked everything on reclaiming two artists he admires: Harley Granville Barker and C P Taylor. It is heartening to see the festival putting its muscle behind this kind of operation, but, to everyone's loss, it has not worked out. I hope that the experience will not discourage McMaster from trying again.

Taylor may yet emerge in credit from the coming revivals of Good and And a Nightingale Sang; but so far his showing has been disastrous, with two more rock-bottom events following the duds of the opening week. Like them, Operation Elvis sank under a dire production in which the story of a Presley-smitten 10- year-old's discovery of his true identity was obliterated by a frantically doubling cast playing on a token matchwood set in the acoustic black hole of the Corn Exchange. The Black and White Minstrels had a better deal in Linda Marlowe's production at the Church Hill Theatre; but only to awaken one's shamed amazement at having been taken in by this raucous conversation piece when it first appeared in 1972. Set in a Glasgow flat whose chief occupant (like Taylor, a record-salesman turned author) is trying to get on with his life in the midst of a quarrelsome commune, the play goes through the hoops of Socialism, black power, and sexual liberation, dropping plot points right and left, with no sense of narrative direction. Taylor was an honest writer, grappling with his own Marxist and Judaic defections; but time seems to have drained away the personal urgency and fun, leaving only a set of puppets performing a mirthless ideological vaudeville.

With Barker, the result (with one rehearsed reading still to come) is to endorse existing opinion: that he was a dramatist of genius who lost it all when he abandoned his life in the theatre. William Gaskill's opening production of The Voysey Inheritance - a sumptuous revival of an already popular play - offered no surprises. Its successor at the Lyceum, The Madras House, is full of them - from the situation of an unmarried mother openly bringing up her child (this in 1910) to the play's power to enthral an audience for a full three hours without the help of a plot.

Edinburgh debate about Barker has centered on his claims as the first British Chekhovian - which certainly embrace his sub-textual skills. But where Chekhov invariably introduces a well-articulated narrative, if only off-stage, Barker disdains this safety-net. Instead, he employs what Peter James aptly terms a 'thematic collage' - a technique that, as James's production of The Madras House compellingly demonstrates, can be made to work in time - through contrast, ironies, echoes, and the sense that the subject is larger than the lives of any particular group of characters. To that extent, this play about the fashion trade relates to directly revolutionary work such as Babel's Marya.

Through the linking figure of Philip Madras (like Edward Voysey, another son clearing up the mess left by his father), Barker examines the world of Edwardian women, showing that their options are limited to buying or being bought. You never discover what happens to the unmarried mother; nor the fate of the Bond Street store under its new American proprietors. What you do get is the electrifying sensation of a society on the brink of momentous change, as expressed through characters whose vitality owes nothing to theatrical stereotype apart from their ability to break out of it.

James's most obvious contribution is to have released this prescient work (our first sex- and-shopping masterpiece) from period clutter, and intensified its argument by doubling the grand ladies of the Huxtable and Madras households with the corseted models who form a mute and increasingly ominous chorus line. Innovations aside, this is an ultra-sensitive event in every detail, from the single outburst Roger Allam allows himself as the rationalising Philip, to the hilariously orchestrated responses of the Huxtable daughters to their dragonishly complacent mama (Frances Cuka).

Something dreadful happened to Barker between this play and his next. 'If I,' said Shaw, 'had produced nothing in the last 12 years except The Exemplary Theatre and The Secret Life I should regard myself as a damned soul.' Like all Barker's work, The Secret Life features a protagonist trying and failing to come to terms with the world. But by now Barker had made his escape into a rich marriage; and where his early work is locked into society and alert to the experience of others, his dramatic interest now shrank to the contemplation of a magnified alter ego in the character of Evan Strowde: a former prime minister, now retired to Bedford Square Les Deux Eglises, deaf to every plea to return and save the country. Just what his political gifts are, or what perils beset the realm, are matters Barker does not unveil. Alan Howard, in the National Theatre's rehearsed reading at the Lyceum, at least projected this Reform Club Achilles as viciously sharp as well as world-weary.

Something of Barker's oblique comedy and social portraiture linger on in The Secret Life; but in his final play, His Majesty (1928), all that remains is the figure of the exiled hero. Collage gives way to historical plotting, possibly inspired by the Bela Kun uprising in Hungary. This has prompted hopeful parallels with Romania and Yugoslavia, which expire as a dreadful joke within five minutes of the play's opening. Barker gives no idea of why Carpathia booted His Majesty out of the country; he is exclusively concerned with painting the monarch (an affable Sam Dastor) as a man of honour who would rather rear poultry than go back on compromised terms, and who practises moral one-upmanship on opponents and supporters alike, not least his imperiously feather- brained queen, here played by Caroline John in the likeness of Nancy Reagan. A mid-century text, its attitudes and clubland vocabulary are immovably rooted in the pre-1914 world. Sam Walters directs its world premiere: it is a doubtful privilege. How bitterly ironic that Barker, who began his career by taking an axe to the false ideals of the 19th century, should have faded out with this Ruritanian tosh.

A brief note to commend the magnificent new Traverse Theatre to Edinburgh visitors, and to offer two pickings from the Fringe, both showbiz fables: Garry Lyons's Frankie and Tommy, a ruthlessly funny recreation by Hull Truck of Tommy Cooper's wartime double-act; and A Drop of Fred by our own Robert Butler, in which Graeme Henderson follows the bungled steps of an Astaire fan before the magic finally enters his shoes. The night I saw him, he was doing it with rain falling on the stage: a performer.

'Madras House', Lyric Hammersmith from Weds (081-741 0824); 'His Majesty', Orange Tree from Thurs (081-940 3633); 'Frankie and Tommy', Assembly Rooms, (031-226 2428); 'A Drop of Fred', Theatre Zoo (031-225 7995).