THEATRE : The art of dirty fighting

THE National Theatre scored a deserved hit last year with Katie Mitchell's revival of Githa Sowerby's Rutherford and Son. But South Bank audiences only saw that play thanks to its rediscovery by two fringe companies in the 1980s; and Sowerby, hav ing hadher moment, was likely to have finished on the shelf as a one-play author. Fortunately, the fringe - in the shape of Bristol's Show of Strength company - has now returned to the Sowerby archive and come up with another remarkable piece.

Nothing has been heard of A Man and Some Women (1914) since its one-week run at the Manchester Gaiety two years after Rutherford - which I can only take as evidence of stiff competition from the other Manchester dramatists. Like its prede- cessor, the play shows a pack of aggrieved women making life hell for one another in a big house. The difference is that here the head of the house becomes a victim rather than a tyrant. Richard, compelled in youth to abandon a mistress and a career in science, is nowa tetchy middle-aged man working himself to death on the Stock Exchange to support his unloved wife and two spinster sisters. The real tyrant is his unseen mother, who forced this life on him and then cut herself off from the family.

The piece opens with his return from her funeral, which activates the events of the plot. Sowerby's model is the Victorian inheritance melodrama: and in that sense you can see what is coming. Of course Richard will turn to Jessica - the only independent woman in the story - in his hour of need; of course he will find a good home for his motherless young nephew, and resume his work on tropical diseases. Sowerby pushes all this through with a purposeful energy that sometimes twists her people out of character.

What transfixes attention, even in the manipulative scenes, is the poisonously accurate domestic detail. Reflecting a period when telephones and cars coexisted with the full apparatus of Victorian morality, the play may belong to a vanished world in which domestic misery is seen as preferable to scandal and poverty. But there is nothing dated in its treatment of the family as a prison with a strict pecking order. The two sisters are marvellously developed: beginning as equally spiteful poor relations, and then diverging, as one (Sheila Hannon) tries to raise her status through malicious piety and the other (Lin Sagovsky) reveals the candour of someone who has nothing to lose. As the wife, Maggie O'Brien rules the roost with a complacently forbearing smile which fades when she engages with Richard (Robin Welch) in her jealously insatiable demands for money.

Sowerby does not pursue the idea that this hunger derives from their groin-dead relationship. What she does offer is a pitilessly exact demonstration of all the dishonest tricks by which marital antagonists put themselves in the right and pass off every selfish impulse as a matter of duty. I can think of no better primer to the art of domestic dirty fighting. Caroline Hunt directs with a sure sense of pace and emphasis; and her production is advantageously staged in a thick-walled 14th-century priory (bang in the middle of a shop- ping centre) which feels as dark and inescapable as any fortress of the Mancunian bourgeoisie.

Jean Anouilh has become almost as rare a bird as the Manchester playwrights, but this inveterately Right Bank artist is not to be salvaged by the fringe. Played by a company combining glamour and high-comic finesse, Leocadia might still work the spell itcast in 1955 with Paul Sco-field and Mary Ure. As it appears in Jonathan Cognac's Generation X revival, with an intelligent but less than star-studded cast in an environment of basic props and hopeful back-projections, you are simply thrown back on the plot. A dotty old duchess recruits a young milliner to masquerade as her nephew's dead beloved in a theme park enshrining his romantic memories. It sounds silly; it looks silly; and the first act, in which the embarrassed old lady tries to explain the intrigue to her protegee, taxes patience to snapping point. Instead of relishing her digressions as a source of suspense and eccentric comedy, you just want her to get on with it.

Edgar (Miltos Yerolemou), the hero of Roy Smiles's The Court Jester, sets off with pig's bladder and whoopee cushion to seek his fortune in the palace of Edward III, where a villainous John of Gaunt is scheming to make away with the future Richard II, while also polishing off every jester who crosses his path. One disastrous audition and Edgar is down in the dungeon, which gives him the cue for a hopeful song, "Always Tomorrow", in harmony with his fellow prisoner, John Ball. As a comic writer, Smiles owes a few debts to Monty Python and Ken Campbell's nonsense plays; but he remains a powerful gag-man who makes you want to know what happens next.

Ain't Misbehavin', one of the most successful compilation shows ever devised, makes its return in an excellent small-stage version by Gillian Gregory and Nicholas Kent. It takes nerve for any pianist to assume the mantle of Fats Waller, but Clement Ishmael not only tears into show-pieces like "Handful of Keys" with full exuberance, he also acts as MC to a stage of gradually increasing depth - which finally opens up on a band recreating the pre-war Harlem sound for the superbly choreographed company. Moving through rent parties, troop shows and hotel lounges, the production can either be descibed as plotless or bursting with plots. Either way, the songs are irresistible: each one leaving you convinced that the last singer is the best thing in the show.

`A Man & Some Women': Bristol Quakers, 0272 537735. `Leocadia': New End, NW3, 071-794 0022. `Court Jester': Croydon Warehouse, 081-680 4060. `Ain't Misbehavin': Tricycle, NW6, 071-328 1000.

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project