Theatre: A Supple way with Rushdie

Haroun and the Sea of Stories Cottesloe, SE1 Guiding Star Liverpool Everyman Mum King's Head, N1
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The Independent Culture
Thursday was one first night when the author's main anxiety wasn't the reaction of the critics. On the way into the National's Cottesloe, there were metal detectors and body searches; inside, security men crowded the foyer, squiggly wires attached to their ears. Salman Rushdie's 1990 novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, has been adapted for the stage; and the author was in the audience.

Haroun begins in a sad city, the saddest of cities, and moves, through "P2C2E" (Processes Too Complicated To Explain), to a world of floating gardens and floating gardeners, artificial darkness (the opposite of artificial light) and the legendary Sea of Stories. Director Tim Supple and co-adapter David Tushingham take 200 pages of Rushdie and turn it into two and a half hours of subsidised showbiz. With Grimm Tales, The Jungle Book and As I Lay Dying, Tim Supple, the Young Vic's artistic director, has developed a singular style of narrative theatre. There's a multi-racial ensemble cast. Actors share out the narrative and play several roles. Non-western music (played onstage) and lighting are integral to the storytelling. It suits Haroun well.

Haroun's father Rashid, a renowned storyteller known as the "Shah of Blah", loses his gift when his wife leaves him. Rashid, played with rasping relish by Nabil Shaban, and Haroun (the boyish, charming Nitin Chandra Ganatra) head off to the Sea of Stories where a Bond-like villain, Khattam-Shud, wants to poison the waters and plug the source of all stories. Rushdie's comical story, which works equally for adults and children, has a clear allegorical punch. Those in power like to control stories. But stories are free. Stories are democratic.

Supple's directorial inventiveness dazzles us from the outset. He switches deftly between bare stages and busy crowd scenes. But as Rashid and Haroun move on their picaresque adventures, the downside of narrative theatre - the amount of plot to get through - threatens to dispel some of the visual and musical enchantment. Melly Still's designs are delightful. Bookmarks are worn as military ribbons. The "Plentimaw" fishes flap umbrellas like gills and wear yellow flip-flops. Blabbermouth wears a uniform of printed words.

But narrative theatre thrives on its set-pieces: the flight of the Monkey People in The Jungle Book; the crossing of the river in As I Lay Dying. Haroun offers plenty to rival those moments. A bus full of passengers careers round hairpin bends. The quested bird, the Hoopoe, takes Rashid and Haroun from one planetary system to another as smaller and smaller globes pass them by. The forces of silence arrive like black-clothed members of the Ku Klux Klan with their mouths zipped up. In these moments, Supple does wonderful justice to Rushdie's caprice.

After several successful gay plays, Jonathan Harvey's latest, Guiding Star, a co-production between the Liverpool Everyman and the National, takes place in the city where if a bloke tries to be romantic, he's a "soft prick", and if he gets up your nose, you "deck 'im". Birds, meanwhile, are "dead fit". Plays about Liverpool have to be careful not to trade on their charm. Sure enough Guiding Star ticks off its references to the Liver Building, the two cathedrals, Lennon and McCartney and the Echo. It's main reference point, however, is Hillsborough; the Sheffield Wednesday stadium, where 96 people died in 1989, has become part of Liverpool too.

Terry Fitzgibbon was at Hillsborough with his two boys, Liam and Laurence. They all survived. But, as Terry says about himself, he hasn't cracked a joke since that day. As powerfully played, with fretful angular intensity by Colin Tierney, he's a paralysed figure who can't hold down a job. His sons are growing up. One of them is gay, and takes a neighbour's dog for a walk in the back fields so that he can pick up guys. The other goes out with the high-pitched Gina (after Caravan at the Bush, Samantha Lavelle turns in another witty portrait of self-obsessed vacuity). Terry's staunch wife, Carol (an impressive Tracey Wilkinson) worries that she'll be a grandma "when I've not even seen 35". The next-door neighbour, Marnie, who keeps popping in, claims to have "one of those faces that people can just gab at". Characters in Guiding Star tend to offer handy self-assessments. Her teenage son, we learn, has cystic fibrosis.

By which stage you think Jonathan Harvey's plot has lined up enough big themes to power a long-running soap. The characters are easy enough to grasp. The morose Terry sits in an armchair reading a book about Auschwitz. The high-pitched Gina wants to go to the karaoke and sing the theme tune from Titanic. The structure is episodic enough for TV. Terry goes to London with Marnie's husband and they meet a prostitute. The others go on a caravan holiday in Tenby. Laurence, Liam and Gina take out a dinghy, and find they can't row back because of the tide. Seeing them crouching in the boat, in Gemma Bodinetz's uneven production, you can't help feeling that if either Laurence, Liam or Gina pulled both oars at the same time, they wouldn't have to put all their hope in a helicopter coming to save them. Guiding Star can be funny and sympathetic. But it keeps flagging up traumatic material and the lack of convincing detail dissuades us from making the emotional investment.

It's tantalising to see, 45 minutes into a play that's almost a monologue, how a character is going to get him or herself offstage for the interval. Mum, a 90-minute play written by the retired comedian Ronnie Barker for his daughter Charlotte, features the most contrived exit I can remember. Alison, 36, lives alone in Dalston, and chats to the imaginary presence of her deceased Mum. She has got to the point at which she's about to tell her mum that she did more with a young man she used to know than she ever let on. Suddenly, she remembers that she has to return some books to the library. She puts on her anorak and heads out the door. Cue interval.

Barker's kindness as a father - his daughter had been out of work for 18 months - outstrips his acuteness as a dramatist. Charlotte Barker is perfectly competent and engaging. But her father's dreary script - with its complaints about not being allowed to smoke anywhere any more - sounds more like ramblings from the shires.

'Haroun and the Sea of Stories': Cottesloe, SE1 (0171 452 3000), booking to 28 November; 'Guiding Star': Liverpool Everyman (0151 709 4776), to 31 October, then Cottesloe; 'Mum': King's Head, N1 (0171 226 1916), to 14 November.