THEATRE / 1994: the year of the playboys: The London Fringe

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If 1990 was the year of the Lears, 1994 is the year of the Playboys. The Playboy of the Western World has already had at least six outings this year, with the latest three opening this week (at the Almeida and Pentameters in London and at the Redgrave in Farnham). Perhaps it's just coincidence, or perhaps there is something about Synge's story of the con-man who woos a whole village with his tall tale of his dreadful deed that has struck theatre directors as meeting the mood of the times.

In Lynne Parker's production at the Almeida, the mood is a comfortless one. Her staging is wonderfully authentic, with an all-Irish cast and a beautifully detailed set (Kathy Strachan) that not only takes you into Michael James's shebeen but has you walk through a peat bog (dry, thankfully) to reach your seats. It's not hard to imagine the wild coastal landscape of Mayo in 1907.

But the naturalistic setting lulls you into a sense of false security, for the production is anything but nostalgic. True, Synge deliberately undercuts romantic portrayals of the Irish peasantry, but Parker emphasises the dark side of his play, so that even the comedy is more bitter. Here the villagers are not charming, sozzled old buffers but ragged old men, drinking with determination. Pegeen Mike is a pale, blazing-eyed woman whose frustration drives her round the house in a rage. The local girls are an earthy lot, desperate for the scent of a real man. There is an atmosphere of simmering violence and longing for excitement to lift the daily grind.

Into this comes Christy Mahon with his story of how he 'destroyed his da', inflaming the imagination of all who wish they could destroy the forces that restrain them. But Synge's play shows how seductive language can be, how dangerous and beguiling the excitement of violence and, in Parker's production, Christy (Aidan Gillen) is not a roguish romantic, but a shifty, foxy character with an eye for the main chance.

Gillen gives an excellent performance on these terms - he's the schoolboy in every class who shifts from foot to foot, not looking you in the eye. His relationship with Pegeen Mike has more to do with sexual attraction than romance, and with a joint revenge upon the world. Aisling O'Sullivan as Pegeen gives a powerful, blazing performance (though it would gain greatly from an occasional lull) and there are fine supporting performances from Gina Moxley as Widow Quin, and Gerard O'Hare as Shawn.

It's a bold production that has great social bite, but it sacrifices some of the comedy and, above all, the tragedy: since there is little sense that Pegeen is falling giddily in love with Christy, the ending is not half so moving as it can be.

Claudio Macor's Venetian Heat (Finborough Arms) is also about lonely people in a remote area who pin romance on the strangers who burst into their kitchen. Set in rural Italy during the Second World War, it focuses on an unhappily married couple whose lives are turned upside down when two army deserters seek refuge in their home. It's a good scenario, but an awkwardly written play that lurches forward in fits and starts, has virtually no subtext and feels as if it needs several more drafts. Phil Willmott's production works hard to give it the sultry, desperate feel of a Lorca tragedy, but cannot rise above the shortcomings of the writing.

At the Bloomsbury Theatre the National Youth Theatre has a fine revival of Oh What a Lovely War, Joan Littlewood's 'musical entertainment' about the lunacy of the First World War. Dean Byfield's production is vigorous, yet polished, and often very moving - the fact that the performers are the same age as many of those who died makes it all the more poignant.

For details see theatre listings on p28.