THEATRE / No room at the inn in Thatcher's Britain: Thatcher's Children - Bristol Old Vic; Relative Values - Chichester; Antony and Cleopatra - Barbican; The Changeling - Barbican, Pit

AS ITS author predicted, London's reviewers have fallen like a ton of bricks on Trevor Griffiths's Thatcher's Children; but meanwhile their phones keep ringing with invitations to take part in broadcast debates on the show. The general idea seems to be that this is an unsatisfactory piece but an important event.

Well, the subject is important; and so is Andrew Hay's production, as an early result of the Arts Council's injection of enterprise capital into the regions through its 'Be Bold' scheme (a thoroughly Thatcherite initiative). Then there is the case of Griffiths himself - English drama's greatest lost leader since Osborne and our most politically literate playwright since Shaw: are there any signs of him emerging from the ideological wreckage and regaining his own voice? I thought so last year after The Gulf Between Us, his fractured but generously impassioned comment on the Gulf war. Now I am not so sure.

There have always been two writers inside Griffiths: the matchlessly articulate analyst of Comedians and The Party, and the class war cartoonist of Sam Sam. You may admire one more than the other, but you have to acknowledge both as honest. Another and more devious Griffiths then arrived in The Piano (1990), an adaptation of Platonov in which he vented his hatred of class privilege while taking shelter behind Chekhov. This Griffiths is the author of Thatcher's Children.

Based on 20 hours of video material shot by its excellent young multi-racial cast, the piece comes with documentary credentials. Whatever Griffiths does, in tracking the lives of seven Yorkshire children, the assumption is that he has the authority of factual evidence and personal contact. 'This isn't a propaganda play,' he has said; and he takes you off-guard in the charming opening scene of a primary school nativity play with one of the kings announcing 'I must follow the star as far as Leeds, me' and the innkeeper saying he has plenty of room. We then see them advancing into the gathering shadows. One turns to selling drugs, another to police corruption and baby-battering. A crusading reporter has her best stories censored and sinks to working for Sky. A Jamaican girl prospers as an accountant but then falls foul of Clause 28.

In no case does the play set up any pattern of cause or effect; and although the old friends sometimes meet, they mainly engage in confessional monologue. All that holds them together is Griffiths's editorialising: through the exhortations of a rock singer and screen projections of the 'Bad Lady' herself, who is presumably responsible for everything that happens to the characters along with the Chapletown riots, the battle of Orgreave and the Sabra-Chatila massacre. As it is all her fault, that means that the company remain blank innocents no matter what they do. 'I don't blame Wayne,' says the mother of the child he has killed: 'he was passed over for promotion.' In the end they return to the nativity play having learnt that there is no room at the inn; while Gurvinder (Kulvinder Ghir), enthroned in a virtual reality helmet, delivers Griffiths's verdict on England's past 20 years: 'This place is turning into shit.' This from the playwright who introduced Gramsci to the British stage.

At the opposite political extreme, Tim Luscombe's revival of Relative Values shows Noel Coward also shooting himself in the foot. In the words of its die-hard butler (Anthony Bate), this 1951 comedy celebrates the 'disintegration of the most unlikely dream that ever troubled the foolish heart of man - Social Equality]' What leads up to this rousing toast is the story of the Earl of Marshwood's engagement to a Hollywood star which comes unstuck when the dowager Countess's maid reveals herself as the star's sister. In the play's best scene, the family tries to cope with this emergency by rigging up the maid in one of her mistress's cast-offs and passing her off as one of themselves. Coward's purpose is to expose her hopeless ineligibility for such promotion. But, as gloriously played by Alison Fiske, the joke backfires; as she rams a bent cigarette down her corsage with the gruff demand, 'Peter, be an angel and get me a drink,' it is their manners and not hers that look ridiculous. Nothing else approaches the verve of this scene; but there is some decorative bitching between Susan Hampshire and Sarah Brightman, and a resourcefully funny performance from Edward Duke in the nothing role of the Countess's confidant.

Two Stratford productions, welcomed last year by my colleague Robert Butler, have moved confidently into the Barbican. Antony and Cleopatra has never become a director's toy; and in John Caird's production (played against Sue Blane's pharonic masonry with stately, barbaric music by Ilona Sekacz) its real requirements are fully met: expert stage management and wonderful acting. If there is a surprise, it is in John Nettles's Octavius, a warm-hearted ally nervously aware of his own limitations. Of the central partners, Richard Johnson is a rumbling giant periodically shrivelling into blustering guilt. Clare Higgins, at one moment prone at her master's feet while turning for a giggle with Charmian, has all the faces of Cleopatra and spins them like a colour wheel, before she rips off her wig and faces death with a close-cropped head. Making light of the play's cinematic battle scenes, this show fulfils Victor Hugo's ideal prescription for tragedy: magnitude and truth.

I hope one day to see Cheryl Campbell as Cleopatra. In the meanwhile she is giving a blazing performance as the murderous Beatrice-Joanna in Michael Attenborough's production of The Changeling. This role usually begins on a note of bashful virginity, offering the sadistic spectacle of purity defiled. That is not Campbell's way; from her opening scene with Alsemero (Michael Siberry) it is clear that her appetites are fully developed; and what follows is not so much a process of corruption as a gradual and hair- raising admission of her desire for the detested De Flores. Malcolm Storry plays him with a strawberry mark and the build of a butcher; and then contradicts your expectations with his modesty. It is another duet between coquettish freedom and insane devotion; like Antony and Cleopatra, they are made for each other.

'Thatcher's Children', Bristol Old Vic, 0272 250250. 'Relative Values', Chichester, 0243 781312. 'Antony and Cleopatra', Barbican, 071-638 8891. 'The Changeling', Barbican, Pit, 071-638 8891.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor