The patois of tiny feats

THE LONDON FRINGE
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The Independent Culture
For those looking for a little bit of apres-shopping seasonal entertainment, Talawa's Maskarade (Cochrane Theatre) ought to be the perfect answer. It's a Caribbean Christmas story, set at the Jamaican street festival of Jonkunnu, and it offers am ple excuse for singing, dancing, flamboyant costumes and wild high spirits. It's a Christmas theme with a difference, having a strong story involving love, money and jealousy, a big fight and an illuminating social context. Traditionally a festival that allowedslaves a chance to let off steam, Jonkunnu developed to incorporate an extraordinary clash of cultural influences and has had a colourful history. Sylvia Wynter's play is set during the 1841 parade, when riots erupted.

Yvonne Brawster's production ought to work beautifully. It is simply staged on an ingenious wooden set of slatted blinds, and performed with a small live band playing Caribbean tunes. The first act is quiet, the prelude to the story proper; the second isall colour as the story unfolds.

Why, then, is it so disappointing? Well for a start the production muffles the story. The first half is not only quiet, it is almost static, and the actors swallow their lines, which are in patois, so that it takes considerable straining on the part of the audience to follow the plot. The singing is ropey and, worst of all, the dramatic tension is negligible. At the key moment in the plot, when the carnival ``king'' tells his usual "queen" that she is being dethroned for a younger model, her reaction isso low-key that it is hard to credit the revenge she comes up with in the second act. And there is no sense of trouble brewing.

The costumes are gorgeous, and the second half has a wonderful, riotous opening. But although Maskarade is a great idea, the execution doesn't live up to the promise.

Another Christmas alternative - handily placed at the Jermyn Street Theatre for a post-shopping pick-you-up - is a small but perfectly formed delight, the Mercury Workshop Musical Revue. Devised by Julia McKenzie and Kit Hesketh-Harvey, it is a charming little showcase of new musical talent: some 20 sardonic, topical songs by a variety of writers and composers, interspersed with mini-sketches.

Subjects range from community care and Third World birth control to an acid little number about Sunset Boulevard. Pastiche is plentiful; there are echoes of Sondheim and Flanders and Swann all over. My favourites were "Check-out Lil", a sad ballad for a lonely till girl, and "I Never Knew", a solo for a bashful housewife whose sex life took a turn for the extraordinary after she read her teenage daughter's magazines. n For details see listings, left

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