THEATRE / The set's the surreal thing: The Importance of Being Earnest - Aldwych; Othello - Birmingham Rep; Frank Pig Says Hello - Royal Court Theatre Upstairs; Squirrels - King's Head to 18 April.

FOR A show cast up to the nines, starring Maggie Smith and directed by Nicholas Hytner, it may seem perverse to start with the set, but if there is one thing that defines this revival of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest it is Bob Crowley's design for the second act.

Here, you will recall, the action moves from the stifling formalities of Mayfair to the liberating fresh air of rural Hertfordshire. And how does Mr Crowley represent this return to nature? With a brutally geometric topiary hedge, tall enough at one end to accommodate a giant porthole affording a perspective view of the manor house overlooking the parterres and central allee of a Le Notre garden, and sloping across the full width of the stage to terminate in a sculpted snail's head cheekily crowned with a bunch of real flowers. If the whole thing were just a little smaller, it would make a hat for Lady Bracknell.

Past productions of this comedy have customarily made some gesture towards naturalism. Not here. This is Wilde as seen in the rear-view mirror of Orton and Stoppard; and it goes without saying that any scene depicting 'nature' will hit the jackpot in artificiality. The narrow entrances through the hedge take on the stony character of Greek tragic portals (The Importance, after all, was prompted by Euripides's Ion); so that when Jack (Alex Jennings) enters in mourning for his alleged brother, it is with the ritual gravity of a state funeral cortege, and even the comings and goings of the dog-cart imply some inscrutable ceremonial purpose.

Throughout the show, all suggestion of ordinary human behaviour has been conscientiously eliminated, with the result that the action periodically spins off into lunatic riffs beyond the call of narrative duty. With passages such as Jack's aforementioned entrance, the company's frantic hunt through the Army List, and Bracknell's court-martial of the deserting governess, Wilde emerges on nodding terms with Magritte: or, as Cicely might have put it, This is not a spade.

Within those terms, the strategy is to push temperamental contrasts to the limit. Even before he arrives, we know what Richard E Grant's Algie will be like from an off-stage cascade of preening arpeggios (not for him the usual bungled G & S party piece): a vision of flashing teeth and crushed velvet, in whom affability is indistinguishable from effrontery, backed by a giant floor-to-ceiling portrait of himself as Dorian Gray before the rot set in. Where he sprawls over the furniture, Jennings's baby-faced Jack cultivates a stiff-necked parsonical rectitude; a wheedling infant when thwarted in his desire for Gwendolen or muffins, but arising to righteous apopleptic wrath when Algie invades his territory.

With the two girls, the scheme runs into trouble. Susannah Harker, as a parade-ground Gwendolen, and Claire Skinner, as a rustically faux-naf Cicely, likewise take their characters to extremes, but with the effect of turning them into automata, some of whose best lines come over as mechanically reversed platitudes. Much better is Margaret Tyzack's Miss Prism, still a bashful virgin, wearing her silk dress like a gym-slip, and telling you more than you want to know about her three-volume novel.

Furthest of all from any recognisable human model is the plumed, steel-grey vulture that stands in for Lady Bracknell - a figure guaranteed to infuriate Wilde fans: to whom, if she cared, Maggie Smith might reply that comedy is entitled to have its wicked way with a creature that is now extinct. Her Aunt Augusta is part suburban parvenu, part drag artist, part vigilantly suspicious rodent. In any guise, her mastery of the stage, which she rakes with laser eyes on every entrance, is total, and her timing devastating: whether skidding over the 'handbag' line only to betray symptoms of acid indigestion as the news of Jack's origins sinks in; spitting out the name 'Prism' like a plug of chewing tobacco; or, finally, executing a lightning volte face at the news of Cicely's wealth which, for the first time, brings a beam of pure affection to those vulpine features. The comic spirit has taken up residence at this address.

Bill Alexander launches his Birmingham regime with an Othello which is not what you might expect from a former RSC director taking over a regional rep. It is an actors' show, with no strong sense of directorial control beyond the basic job of animating the rep's cavernous main stage. Even there, the production - played on Kit Surrey's black paving-stone set - is unresourceful; relying too much on stately walk- downs, contrasts between brightly lit front scenes and shadowy backgrounds, and dutifully unspontaneous group routines. Mid-stage white drapes variously represent the sails of the Venetian fleet and the bedchamber curtains, but locale often remains vague: a set littered with overturned chairs does duty for a street, and Roderigo bumps into Iago in what has just been Desdemona's bedroom.

Principal performances are another matter. Jeffery Kissoon appears in the robes of a Moorish prince and justifies them in a heroic collapse from majestic dignity into elemental frenzy. The cracking point comes in the handkerchief scene, where love and suspicion fight it out under cover of aloof courtesy ('How do you, Desdemona?' comes out with the inflection of 'How do you do?') to which Alex Kingston responds with mocking bewilderment. This is characteristic of her spirited, down-to-earth Desdemona, who flirts with Iago, irritably shoos the plaintive Cassio away, never for a moment considering herself a tragic figure, and still appealing to his common sense as Othello's hands fasten round her throat. Hilton McRae switches Iago's virtuous and Satanic masks to great rhetorical effect. But it is the lovers' show.

'You'd like to cry out, but you can't; that's what it's like for dumb people.' Appearing towards the end of Pat McCabe's Frank Pig Says Hello, that line summarises the position of its hero, who has lost his father, mother, and best friend, endured spells in a borstal and mental home, and finally taken his vengeance with a carving knife, all without a word of complaint or relaxing his cheerful grin.

Why Frank adopts the persona of a piglet is one of several riddles posed by Mr McCabe's adaptation of his novel The Butcher Boy that I cannot answer. But after its confusing opening, Joe O'Byrne's production (for the Dublin Co- Motion Theatre) exerts an ever- strengthening grip, as you observe the hero's cruel and stunted life re-enacted in the form of doggerel songs and childhood games. Sean Rocks, playing an inexhaustible throng of village children and neighbours, is a technician whose skills rise from the gut: likewise David Gorry as the boyish Piglet who, as he takes his bow, is no longer smiling.

David Mamet's Squirrels, receiving its European premiere at the King's Head, recalls the same author's A Life in the Theatre. Another early piece, it too shows an eager artistic newcomer tangling with a clapped-out old pro: in this case a young writer resentfully assisting a blocked senior who has been struggling with an opening sentence for 15 years. Despite the interventions of a cleaning lady who has literary ambitions of her own, the play is trapped in the same stalemate. What it does offer is some delicious dialogue and thoroughbred performances from Sara Kestelman, Edward Petherbridge, and Steven O'Shea.

Arthur Miller's latest play 'The Last Yankee', recommended by Irving Wardle in today's 'Sunday Review' (page 78), has just been extended to 17 April. Zoe Wanamaker leaves as planned on 27 March, but the rest of the cast is unchanged.

(Photograph omitted)

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