THEATRE / A summer evening in the park with George

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The Independent Culture
THE FIRST Broadway show that George and Ira Gershwin wrote together was a highly successful vehicle for Fred Astaire and his sister Adele. Shrewdly, it told the story of a brother-and-sister dance act. The curious thing about the Open Air Theatre's revival of Lady Be Good is that the dancing - mainly Charlestons and soft-shoe shuffles - is the least of its charms.

When one character asks if they want to see something special, and then the dance routine that follows is rather ordinary, you sense that back in 1924 audiences were getting something different. Instead of dance, director Ian Talbot goes for the comedy and songs. Some extra Gershwin numbers have been added, but the ones I was humming on the way home were in the original - 'Fascinating Rhythm' and the title song.

The plot is a labyrinthine affair in which the siblings find themselves penniless, the brother tries to marry an heiress, and his sister is compelled to impersonate one. Joanna Riding plays the Adele part with a smile bright enough to knock out a follow-spot. Her tomboy vigour suits the American sassiness of the character as she belts out 'Just Another Rhumba' with an eye on those who are strolling outside in the park. It wouldn't hurt if the odd shadow darkened her exuberant face, but her heel-stamping performance in the hotel lobby scene made the fountain tremble.

Simon Green plays the Fred role with a spruce, thin-lipped enthusiasm. A cheeky disingenuousness would have charmed us through his character's more dubious actions: otherwise it's Henry Fonda without the sincerity.

The lines are wittier than the plot. Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson's fast-moving dialogue supplies a florid Bernard Cribbins with an evening's worth of wisecracks, puns and comic arias. Cribbins wastes nothing as the disreputable lawyer Watty Watkins, his squirrel eyes fixed on the fast buck, then the quick exit. He slips very naturally into the title song, bringing a friendly irony to the panic-stricken request that Joanna Riding dress up as a Mexican widow. This bustling hot-air comedy finds an able match in Gavin Muir's monocled silly-ass, Bertie Bassett, whose new career as the hotel detective blows the Mexican sub-plot.

Ian Talbot rightly gives the nonsense full rein. This is a cartoon world, and if the next song comes along fast enough we'll forgive the corniness. The production values veer uncomfortably between West End and local rep, but outdoor shows have their own coups. As night falls, problems resolve and marriages loom, designer Paul Farnsworth spreads the fairy lights across the Regent's Park trees. If the weather is fine, as it was on the first night, this daft musical with its heavenly songs is the silly season's candidate for a good night out.

At the Lyric, Hammersmith, two murderers and a burglar shelter in the same cell during a breakout in a maximum-security wing. In the violent shifts that follow, the prisoners break down each other's defences and deliver painful home truths. No Remission, a first play by 28-year-old Rod Williams, strips its characters with the heat of a blow-torch. The idea that the fiancee is waiting faithfully, or that the crime was an accident, or that the prisoner is the victim of an administrative error are just a few of the illusions the characters slip into along with the shapeless prison jeans.

White lines mark out the narrow playing area that contains a table, two chairs and a bed. They also mark out the territory of the writing. For Williams digs deep rather than ranging wide. The real stories are extracted, against howls of protest, like rotten teeth.

Director Derek Wax keeps this rollercoaster on track, finding the highs and lows, and drawing out urgent, detailed performances from the cast of three. Daniel Craig plays the Bible-reading ex- soldier, who's only an hour up the motorway from his fiancee. Pip Donaghy gives Victor the burglar the weak, shifty bluff of a George Cole. As Derry, Robin Spendlove paces the stage with a boxer's pent-up aggression. After facing up to the identity of his victim, he blows his nose on his sweaty, blood-stained vest and then smashes up his cell.

Williams's high-adrenalin dialogue favours the crossfire of emotions under stress. The language is soaked in prison slang, but questions about the nature and progress of the breakout, or the more mundane horrors of life inside, go unexamined.

Upstairs at the same theatre, a co-production with the West Yorkshire Playhouse has revived Alan Ayckbourn's 1974 comedy, Absent Friends. If this is popular scheduling for the summer holidays, day-trippers should note that Peter James's faithful production leaves an unseasonal chill. A prosperous middle-aged couple, Paul (Michael Melia) and Diana (Susie Blake), squeeze the life out of each other with tight smiles and dirty looks. Ayckbourn's comedy has lost none of its subtly diffused anger.

The occasion is a tea-party to console Colin (Gary Bond), whose fiancee has recently drowned. The afternoon backfires as Colin's romantic memories of his fiancee show up the nasty feuds around him, Bond blunders round the living-room with big smiles and neatly-creased trousers, scattering an alarming optimism. As he does so, the rest of the accomplished cast register their own lurking unhappiness.

As Paul, Michael Melia makes an absorbing descent from the measured poise of the unpleasant businessman to the shattered, reflective heap of the failed husband. Susie Blake, his pert wife, attempts to contain her fury, then pours a jug of cream over his head before flipping out. The frizzy redhead Evelyn (Jane Slavin) can hardly bear to talk to her uselessly energetic husband (John Salthouse). Both manage to make her sullenness heroic.

As Act Two goes on, the humour drifts away, leaving the characters to face an unpleasant fact. In Ayckbourn, marriage is a huge, drifting iceberg of discontent.

In Stories From The National Enquirer, a reporter returns to his home town to file a dozen stories on whatever he can find. Played with a guileless smile by Owen Scott, he arrives with the blank amorality of his notepad. Gradually he falls in love with the waitress at the diner (Daphne Nayar) and loses this detachment.

Jeanne Murray-Walker's novelistic play amiably pits the eccentricities of rural life against the editorial perspective of the Enquirer. When the town throws Scott a leaving party, he realises this weird old place is home. The numerous entrances and exits, characters and scene changes, makes this an ambitious choice for a small fringe space. Director Kirstie Gulick struggles to centre an already sprawling affair.

Brian Friel's early play Philadelphia, Here I Come], a huge critical success at the King's Head, has transferred to the West End. The retrospective structure, the mild nostalgia, and moments of uncertain comedy (the spoof conducting, the brash American aunt) left me wishing this benevolent revival had sharper invective and more decisive conflict.

'Lady Be Good', Open Air Theatre (071-486 2431); 'No Remission', Lyric Studio (081-741 8701); Absent Friends', Lyric Hammersmith (081-741 2311); 'Stories From The National Enquirer', Man in the Moon (071-351 2876); 'Philadelphia, Here I Come]', Wyndham's (071-867 1116).

Irving Wardle returns next week.

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