The Fringe: The sentimental education

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The Independent Culture
The London listings magazine Time Out has already dubbed it the Gate of the South and, though it's perhaps early days for that, the new team at Greenwich Studio does share some of the hallmarks that made the Gate in Notting Hill, London, great - clever use of a tiny performing space, a programme of European rarities and excellent production values.

The second of the team's Comedies of the Enlightenment is rare indeed, an 18th-century Danish comedy by Ludvig Holberg called Erasmus Montanus. The title might not exactly set the taste buds tingling but, adroitly translated, nipped and tucked by Julian Forsyth (who also directs), the play emerges as a neat and highly enjoyable moral comedy.

A peasant's son, Rasmus Berg, returns to his village after three years at Copenhagen university the proud possessor of an education, fastidious habits and a Latinised name. But it soon transpires that his instruction has been primarily in syllogism, pedantry and intellectual snobbery. Perched on a barrel in the barn, he ridicules and even frightens his untutored family and friends with his knowledge. And, while he can ably prove that God is a parsnip or that Adam had a navel, it's clear that for all his learning he has not gained in understanding.

The play is cleverly poised: while you despise Rasmus's snobbery, you retain sympathy for him as he sticks doggedly to his belief that the earth is round in the face of outrage from the villagers. (Mark Feakins' perceptive performance brings out both sides of his character.) It also explores other territory to do with learning - it's clear that Rasmus's brother Jacob (an excellent performance from Eddie Marsan) has the greater understanding of the two, but will never be able to develop it because circumstances dictate that he must tend the farm.

Forsyth's production is well paced, well acted and funny and has some lovely touches (when Rasmus goes to university, the women left behind are spotlit one by one as they go about their tasks) and the play is given a strong sense of time and place by Margarete Forsyth's detailed set.

Julian Perkins' Images of Tiffin (Old Red Lion) also focuses on an odd man out. Stan lives in a village near Blackpool and, thanks to his unprepossessing looks and gentle personality, can only count people who use him as his 'friends'. When he brings home Kora, a stunning Filipino bride obtained through an agency, the neighbours' tongues wag overtime - but Kora warms to his innate kindness and the two fall in love.

As soft centres go, this is veritable strawberry creme, but the play's strength is that it glories in its sentimentality and plays it to the hilt, taking you with it (helped by Aaron Shirley and Pinky Amador, who are touching as the odd couple). And, while it is a play about love and decency, it's also a corruscating state-of- Britain piece. Kora's rose-coloured images of England soon fade when she's faced with the realities of employers who search her bag every time she leaves work and bus-drivers who snarl if she has the wrong change. The play has faults: it starts slowly, has some stodgy dialogue and the other characters are very one-dimensional - one more draft could iron out these sticky points and leave Perkins with a warm-hearted winner.

As outsiders go, few could match Kafka's Red Peter, an ape who has talked his way into human society. In A Report to an Academy (Royal Court), Henry Goodman delivers Red Peter's address to a distinguished academy, offering an uncomfortable view of human conduct. It's a bizarre show, with Goodman giving an astonishingly convincing performance as an ape in evening dress. Disturbing.

'Erasmus Montanus' (081-858 2862); 'Images of Tiffin' (071-837 7816); 'A Report to the Academy' (071-730 1745).

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