THEATRE / A swift half with Mike Leigh

OLD FRIENDS of Stratford East's Theatre Royal who cherish the place as a relic of Victorian swagger, will have to choke back their sympathy on future visits. With its remodelled boxes and circle, acres of plush carpet, and repainted gilt and scarlet plasterwork making you blink under the new house lights, Matcham and Buckle's 1884 auditorium has reverted from a pathetic waif to a heavy swell. Magnificent.

Lest you should forget how things used to be, Mike Leigh's It's a Great Big Shame opens with a reminder of Victorian theatre at its dingiest. A tatty false proscenium drops into the grand stage opening, revealing one Nellie Buckett (Kathy Burke), a waif of outstanding pathos, delivering the title number as if in fear of being booed off. Nellie, however, has her own reasons for singing about big Bill, who is broken into marriage by a wife half his size.

Like all Leigh's work, this show is scripted from improvisations by the cast; the exercise this time being to develop a play from a music-hall song. It goes without saying that the company's first move is to switch from comedy to melodrama - so that the lyric's funniest line, 'I've got ter clean the windows an' the knives', recurs as the grisliest speech in the show. Otherwise Leigh's actors take their cue from the Cockney realism of their model, releasing a rich vein of Dickensian pastiche in which the gormless Jim (Paul Trussell) and his domineering spouse (Wendy Nottingham) fight it out among draymen, petty crooks, nobs, snooping coppers, and drunken seamen. You witness the events partly from the viewpoint of the outcast Nellie, pursuing the unattainable Jim with huge hungry eyes; and partly from that of the pub landlady (Ruth Sheen) to whom all are welcome provided they have the price of a pint.

You expect good lines in Leigh's shows, and you get them here. More surprisingly, you also find a well-prepared plot and (with the exception of Joe Tucker as Nellie's sadistic tormentor) a group of likeable characters. The usual objection to Leigh - that his actors incriminate their roles, and have no social dimension - does not apply to this powerfully imagined group, who reverse the Victorian temperance message by showing drink as a humanising refuge from the savagery of the streets and the matrimonial prison which brings the story to its Grand Guignol climax.

The play, alas, does not stop there. In a second act, set in the same Stratford house, it movesup to date and presents another fatal marital showdown between a hulking wife (Michele Austin) and her weedily exasperating mate (Clint Dyer). The banter between this pair and a rank-pulling sister-in-law (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is often hilarious; but it tends to proceed in unconnected riffs - a friendly routine on hair-styling followed by a severe one on dieting - and to notch up laughs by putting the characters down. The final ghostly confrontation between Stratford past and present has been imposed in an attempt to turn two entirely different shows into one. The first is a play; the second a string of improvisations.

Having launched Priestley's over-familiar An Inspector Calls into new life, Stephen Daldry now attempts the same service for Sophie Treadwell's long- forgotten Machinal. Treadwell's career, as an actor, war correspondent, traveller, novelist, and campaigner for women's rights, makes stirring reading; and it is easy to see how her once-famous play made such a hit on the pre-war Soviet stage, as a spur to creative direction and an indictment of capitalist America.

A feminist programme note pushes Treadwell as a forerunner of Beckett and Mamet; but the real link is with Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine, another expressionist treatment of office life which appeared in 1922, six years before Machinal, and featured an anonymous hero (Mr Zero). Treadwell substitutes an anonymous Young Woman, though she is based on Ruth Snyder, sentenced to the electric chair in 1927. In both plays you witness the city through the eyes of an impotent protagonist as a savage funfair inhabited by grinning, slogan- mouthing grotesques.

Treadwell's heroine starts as an office wallflower, who succumbs to marriage with her unappetising boss, deceives him with a speakeasy pick-up, and finally brains him with a bottle, for which she goes to the electric chair. The aim of the play is to prove that it was all their fault. I do not think it succeeds.

To convince you that it does, Daldry enlists a large cast and vast scenic resources, including the most elaborately mechanised South Bank set (by Ian MacNeil) since The Wind in the Willows. On hydraulic lifts and giant trucks, offices, blood- chilling honeymoon hotels, and a mortuary-like hospital ward emerge from the engulfing darkness. The main stage rises to show its steel entrails for the scene of execution. And the entire production takes place under a collage grid that tilts and dips to suggest the rusting fire escapes, leaden skies and oppressively low ceilings of the Manhattan prison house.

Performances, with exchanges of treadmill banter and rhythmic telegraphese, rising to chest-beating barks from the court-room antagonists, are equally robotic; though not entirely to obscure the fact that John Woodvine, as the detested husband, emerges as a kindly chap who takes his wife's frigid tantrums in his stride. Fiona Shaw, our reigning virtuoso in domestic misery, charts a spectacular descent from virginal frustration into marital desperation. She has at least one moment that touches the heart. 'Am I never to be left alone?' she sobs, when faced with a pre- execution haircut. But when the theatrical dice are so extravagantly loaded in her favour, it is hard to sympathise with her claims to victim status.

Beyond noting that it concerns a South Pacific island where the Duke of Edinburgh is worshipped as a god (Pilip), I shall not attempt to summarise Ken Campbell's Jamais Vu. Past students of his one-man shows know the form; a few minutes of seemingly aimless chat, and then you are sucked into the depths of that gleaming cranium where ideas and unlikely nuggets of information couple and proliferate into fantastic mutations, and speculations on the secret of the universe cohabit with bum and willy gags. Even so, I was unprepared for the sight of Campbell querying the existence of John Birt with six kitchen plungers stuck to his head; or the avalanche of conspiracy theories aiming variously to beam Channel 4 direct to the human brain and blast a new French continent into existence. Not to mention the Duke's direct descent from the Virgin Mary following her emigration to Cornwall. As Campbell says, fresh from his research in Gant's Hill public library, 'I'm not mad; I've just read different books'.

I cut the end of this marvellous show to see the Barbican transfer of Tamburlaine. It was a poor exchange. Antony Sher's combative athletics and the grotesque battle scenes of Terry Hands's production remain as thrilling as they were at the Swan last year; but the process of expanding the show for a main stage has robbed it of tonal variety, replacing a rainbow of moral and comic ambiguities with blank stretches of monotonous rhetoric. The transfer from Chichester of Eileen Atkins's Vita and Virginia offers the pleasures you would expect from an exchange of Bloomsbury letters. A pair of subtle performances from Atkins and Penelope Wilton; superb language; not much going on.

'Great Big Shame', Royal Stratford E (081-534 0310). 'Machinal', Lyttelton; 'Jamais Vu', Cottesloe (both 071-928 2252). 'Tamburlaine', Barbican (071-638 8891). 'Vita and Virginia', Ambassadors (071-836 6111).