THEATRE : A cracking time

Cracked Pot / Road West Yorks Playhouse / Royal Exch., Manchester
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The Independent Culture
Blake Morrison drops a "clunter" into the very first line of his Yorkshire comedy The Cracked Pot, and at first the dialogue sounds like a glossary with the "scutters". But as the characters from Kleist's German original settle into Skipton circa 1808, any self-consciousness in the dialect writing dissolves into their throaty energy and the intrigue of a cunning comic plot.

This concerns the efforts of Judge Adam's shambolic court to investigate the trauma that befell the eponymous pot in some hanky-panky the night before. Adam's shaggy justice is stretched this time by the niceties demanded by a visiting inspector and the boundless outrage of his litigant neighbours. The judge is plainly a part for Barrie Rutter, and he falls upon it with infectious relish. He also directs this Northern Broadsides production, and, admirably supported by his cast, the translation to Yorkshire is entirely vindicated.

Across the Pennines, the Royal Exchange has broken out of the champagne bar to stage Jim Cartwright for the first time and give him his debut as a director, too. His own view of Road is less baleful than might be expected. Cartwright has had the Millstone pub set up in the surrounding space (design Laurie Dennett) and makes excellent use of the auditorium, notably with Polly Hemingway's Marion stretching like a gargoyle from the gallery, and John Lloyd Fillingham careening drunkenly round the banquettes.

All this is the fun of a great night out, which is indeed the format of Road. It is a cabaret of squalor and desire in which the street's characters do turns from their lives of raucous desperation. The truly unsettling thing about Cartwright's metaphor is that they are stuck in a cycle of repetition - hence the tremendous power of the play's climax when four young people shriek for some escape, forcing through their inarticulacy into a refrain that sounds like a huge radio jam.

The wry irony with which our host Scullery - played by Bernard Wrigley with his loose-chippings voice - invites us back reminds us pointedly of a theatre audience's distance from this world, rather than our empathy with it - a properly unsettling bit of grit in our enjoyment.

n`Cracked Pot': to 1 April, then touring. (Details: 0113-244 2111). `Road': to 1 April: 0161-833 9833

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