THEATRE / What's it all about, Alfie?: Nick Curtis reviews Alfie, newly arrived in the West End, plus the best of the Fringe

BEFORE the touchy-feely Nineties man has even begun to flash his reconstructed credentials on stage, a pre-emptive strike has been launched by the old lads. First John Osborne exhumed Jimmy Porter for a misogynistic reprise in Dejavu. Then the National Theatre's revival proved that the charming sheen had worn off Billy Liar. Now the ultimate post-war wide-boy has returned: Bill Naughton's Alfie rears his roguish head at the Queen's Theatre.

This renewed popularity for characters who treat women like Kleenex must surely mark a recessionary longing for a more innocent, affluent era. The flip-side of Alfie's reactionary sexism is the new optimism of the Sixties. Freed from Fifties hardship, Alfie is less political than Porter and more savvy than Billy; he's got money, spiffy suits, a car . . . and more birds than he can shake a stick at. Birds, he reckons, just want a good time. So does Alfie. So where's the harm, eh?

Apart from female characters so two-dimensional they almost justify Alfie's catch-all term of endearment, 'it', the harm lies in the play's laborious length and torpid pacing. Alfie is not just dated, but dull. Like its hero, the script is chiefly concerned with the next conquest; the successive seductions, and Alfie's jocund soliloquies - which fold each cameo character into the equation that justifies his egotism - become a tiresome blur.

The central performance of Adam Faith, who also directs, is essential to the nostalgia factor. Age has not withered Faith's rough-edged charm, which he uses to downplay the character's essential callousness. He is also genuinely convincing at Alfie's crass come-uppance, crumbling under the weary gaze of a back-street abortionist (Leonard Fenton, the only supporting player to flesh out the wafer-thin cameos). At times though, the disparity between Faith's and Alfie's ages shows glaringly, a reminder that this play, like the Ford Popular into which Naughton loads his hero at the end for an embarrassingly redemptive back-seat bunk-up, belongs in a museum rather than a theatre.

Deciding where Philippe Genty belongs has never been easy. Variously feted as a puppeteer, director and choreographer, he is perhaps best described as an illusionist, juxtaposing the real and the artificial in plotless, movement-based shows in a desperate search for novelty.

A cringingly embarrassing free verse programme note ('I am falling forever / falling into one of those unmarked memory / holes, / becoming an avalanche') and simpering company biographies give a foretaste of what is to come in his latest box of tricks, Forget Me Not. Sure enough, this is a lengthy divertimento on the theme of memory, its coy, dream-like ambience only ever flirting with the nightmarish.

A stack of formally dressed figures teem from behind a sofa to overwhelm a chimp in a dress. Five live performers animate five dummies for a formless game of tag, where attempts at seduction are contrasted with repression, epitomised by a paper bag over the head. Huge turd-like grubs twitch across the stage and the sofa bulges into a threatening blob. Images of birth and death are thrown up and then thrown over. Unanchored by substance in Genty's tricksy presentation, they become meaningless, disposable.

A case in point is the moment when one of the women, having shed her gown to become a child (symbolism, anyone?), takes refuge from a gang of men in swathes of parachute silk. The silk billows into a voluminous scooped skirt; then the ribbed hood of the material rises, until the woman is twirling at the heart of a great rippling conch shell. It's a stage picture of astonishing beauty. But once the buzz of enchantment has passed, the spectator searches vainly for meaning as the image dissolves. Genty does not respond, other than to resume his barrage of clever sleight of hand. More matter with less art, you want to shout at him, to wake him from his twee slumber.

For Trish Cooke, memory is an essential commodity. In her lumpy but pleasing Running Dream at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, deracinated characters cling to the past as a means of self-affirmation. A Dominican mother emigrates to England, taking one child with her, leaving another behind and bearing a third in her new home. Clementine (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) feels cheated of English promise; Grace (Sherlina Chamberlain) misses 'Clemmy' and the life of La Plaine village; Bianca, with her Brummie twang, is taunted by whites for being black, and by her sisters for her accent, mimsy nature and city ways.

The fluid ensemble scenes in Dominica, conducted in Creole 'patwa' to lilting background music, are excellent. Chamberlain, Tyson and Baptiste evolve a seemingly effortless recreation of the easy camaraderie and casual cruelty of youth. But the action, like the girls' mother, falls apart when it moves to England and Cooke bogs the play down with lumbering explanation. She also indulges in some rather specious generalisations about life in Britain and Dominica, denuding the play of its initial, directly emotional clout.

'Alfie' is at the Queen's to 20 March (071-494 5040); 'Forget Me Not' at Sadler's Wells to 13 March (071-278 8916); 'Running Dream' at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East to 27 March (081-534 0310).

(Photograph omitted)

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