THEATRE / Helen Mirren, comedy star: I cannot think what has prompted Richard Eyre to install this piece in his main house

FOR THE first major revival of Turgenev's A Month in the Country in 20 years, Triumph Productions appear to have laid on an old-fashioned West End treat. The cast-list reads like a Black Magic chart. No less succulent is the design (by Hayden Griffin, Andy Phillips, and Deirdre Clancy) with its succession of poetically lit birchwood landscapes and dresses of ever- increasing splendour. Here is the serio-comic insight of Chekhov with no ominous echoes from the outside world. No one is going to chop those trees down just yet.

Bill Bryden's production arrives from the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, where I first saw the play at the theatre's launch in 1965. The leads then were Ingrid Bergman and Michael Redgrave, who lent their combined glamour to dignifying the Natalya-Rakitin misalliance as a partnership of suffocatingly well-bred elegance. When Dorothy Tutin and Derek Jacobi took up the roles 10 years later there was less rank-pulling and more emotional candour. But again, whatever you learnt to the characters' discredit - of their apathy, deceit, or manipulative jealousy - was offset by romantic charm.

When Stanislavsky rescued A Month in the Country from a half-century of neglect, he described it as the work of a theatrical lace-maker. Since when the idea has persisted of its delicate psychological fabric, not to be subjected to the wear and tear of normal theatrical use. Five minutes into Bryden's version and you hear Helen Mirren loudly complaining, 'We're making lace' - meaning that she and Rakitin (John Hurt) are getting nowhere and she's bored to death. Sympathy and grand gestures thereupon go up in smoke. Turgenev may have been writing about hot-house creatures, but this show proves that the play itself is no hot- house plant.

Simultaneously it cuts through the ensemble surface to reveal that the action is under the control of a single character. The piece is a star vehicle, and Mirren emerges from it as a whale of a star. The past impression of Natalya Petrovna is of a listless but amiable wife, idling the days away with her cavaliere servente Rakitin until she is swept off her feet by her stepson's young tutor, Belyaev. What Mirren does from the outset is to convert her mood from passive to active. With a husband always busy on the estate, Natalya rules the roost; the rest of the household are scared of her, never knowing when she is going to flare up next. Mirren shows her as a character who wants to combine the pleasure of tyranny with the fulfilment of love and friendship. And, to the amazed laughter of Tuesday's audience, she presents this as a mercilessly comic spectacle.

As she thrusts herself on her dependents - playing sisters with her teenage ward (Anna Livia Ryan) or modest friend to Belyaev (a lovely performance by Joseph Fiennes) - you can see them cringing away. One false word and she will make a lightning return to protocol. Hurt plays Rakitin as an eternal spectator who has been trapped into joining the game; and who swallows his indignities with mounting nausea until he finally spits them out in a paroxysm of self-disgust.

In company and alone Mirren is always acting: trying out noble and romantic gestures like extravagant hats, and then trampling them underfoot. And her note of realist exasperation as yet another heroic posture bites the dust is as hilarious as it is unforgiving.

This approach admittedly works better in the oblique, multi-layered first half of the play than in the second half, where ensemble gives way to debt-settling confrontations. Mirren by this time has nothing more to reveal.

But there remains Gawn Grainger's exquisitely comic portrait of the not-so-complaisant husband, and the unmasking of John Standing's jovially buffoonish doctor as even meaner than the mistress of the estate. A treat, but not of the old-fashioned kind.

A political satire from a co- author of The Front Page - that sounds too good to be true; and so it proves with the National's exhumation of Charles MacArthur's Johnny on a Spot. Except as a bit of light relief from David Hare's The Absence of War (which also opens with a frantic search for a lost party leader amid looming elections), I cannot think what has prompted Richard Eyre to install this feeble piece in his main house complete with a damn-the-expense Romano- Egyptian set by William Dudley, including a lift that goes up and down.

Like The Front Page, which came first, this 1942 comedy shows an unsinkable hero outsmarting an assorted bunch of crooks and cronies before making off with the best girl. There all resemblance ends, as we move from the Chicago newsroom to a Deep Southern gubernatorial parlour, and exchange a sparky reporter for a tricksy campaign manager.

Nicky Allen's aim is to get the rogue alcoholic Governor Upjohn into the Senate. But as heroes have to be sympathetic, this 'Northern Richelieu' is presented as an ambition-free master of ceremonies, and a tale of political corruption is neutered into the vein of crazy American family comedy, featuring lovable characters like the old Health Commissioner (Michael Bryant) who comes into work accompanied by his tame macaw.

Plot is always being derailed by narrative: and instead of generating laughs from the given situation, the play tries to conjure them out of thin air. Wouldn't it be funny if the Governor was found dead in a whorehouse? And if he'd recorded speeches for posthumous transmission? Well, no,

it wouldn't.

James Grout has some droll moments as a windbag judge, improvising a campaign speech with not a clue of what its message should be. Mark Strong offsets Nicky's persistent bullying by playing him in the likeness of a macho Gershwin; and there are startling echoes of Doris Day and Chico Marx from Janie Dee as the campaign's Girl Friday and Howard Ward as a bungling Hispanic bodyguard.

Eyre directs a crack company (with Barry Stanton as the Governor's arch-enemy and Diane Langton as his pneumatically corseted nemesis); but their speed, energy, and high- tension climaxes operate in inverse ratio to theatrical impact.

Two excellent shows from last year are deservedly back in business. Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing, partly recast since its Bush premiere, is at the Donmar. It remains an unfakeably truthful portrait of adolescent self-discovery, showing sensitivity and fun pushing up like wild flowers through the concrete crevices of a Thamesmead estate. This is the most heartening working-class comedy since A Taste of Honey.

In One Hell of a Do Jon Kenny and Pat Shortt celebrate the award for the best amateur pub-wedding band in Ireland with an avalanche of twitches, funny walks, and verbal convulsions suggesting a Tipperary epidemic of Tourette's Syndrome. Then they recruit a happy pair from the house and get down to staging the wedding, from the benedictions to the hangovers, with passing contributions from fork- tongued village gossips and misty-eyed expats. They know their territory, and they know their business. A ball.

'A Month in the Country': Albery, 071-867 1115. 'Johnny on a Spot': Olivier, 071-928 2252. 'Beautiful Thing': Donmar, 071- 867 1150. 'One Hell of a Do': Tricycle, 071-328 1000.

(Photograph omitted)

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