Theatre: Anglo-Indian attitudes

Last Dance at Dum Dum New Ambassadors, London Look Back in Anger Lyttelton, London Disposing of the Body Hampstead, London
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The Independent Culture
First acts are easier to write than second acts, and first plays are easier to write than second plays. Last week proved the point with another victim of second-play syndrome. Ayub Khan-Din had a big hit with his debut play, East is East, an exuberant autobiographical comedy about an Asian family, growing up in Salfrod, where their dad runs a fish-and- chip shop. The film is to be released in the autumn.

So expectations were unfairly high for his second play, Last Dance at Dum Dum. This time Khan-Din has moved away from his own experiences to present a picture of a dwindling, marginalised community in India. Since Independence, the population of Anglo-Indians has shrunk from 250,000 to 100,000. Those who didn't emigrate remain an isolated ethnic group. Many are elderly and live in old people's homes.

Last Dance at Dum Dum takes place in one of these - Dum Dum is a colonial bungalow in Calcutta. Outside the crumbling walls, we hear rioting on the streets. Inside the front garden, among the pot plants and wicker chairs, we meet defiant old ladies, an ex-military type and an effeminate serving boy, who can do Marilyn Monroe imitations. Everyone's a bit of a character. But, as it turns out, only a bit of one.

Tim Hatley's picturesque design draws us into a dusty twilight world where jasmine covers the peeling walls. With this fading grandeur we expect tetchiness and regrets and beautiful sunsets. We expect something elegiac. But that isn't what Khan-Din has in mind. In the opening moment, Madhur Jaffrey runs on in a nightdress, throws a jug of water over the wall at the rioters in the street beyond and shouts: "Come on, rape me now ... you faint-hearted bastards!" It could be a farce.

The questions of race and identity never trouble us as much as the question of tone. Illness, mortality, dispossession, the rise of Hindu fundamentalism: Last Dance at Dum Dum flags up each of these themes. But then Khan-Din's comic spirit rapidily dismantles whatever he sets up and the next whimsical event hurries us on.

In Stuart Burge's lively production, the elements still remain disparate. Jaffrey unleashes unforgiving views as the strident Muriel, dying from a brain tumour, and Nicholas Le Prevost flaps around her as the bewildered husband, Bertie. Ironically, it is the Englishwoman Diane Fairfax who looks most at home. Her return to England was brief: she discovered that Mrs Thatcher is the "worse kind of box-wallah you could meet".

In East is East, the rigidities of the parents' Pakistani heritage clashed with the irreverent energies of the children. In the battle between order and subversiveness, we knew exactly where we were. Here, it's the local political leader, Mr Chakravatty (Madhav Sharma) who threatens the stability of the old people's home. But that plot-line moves in and out of focus. Last Dance at Dum Dum never presents a credible level of reality from which we can engage with the action. It's as if the play - more than the characters themselves - is suffering from an identity crisis.

Just at a time when John Osborne's reputation as a playwright is in freefall along comes a young stage actor with the energy, verve and sheer talent to make us see once again what an achievement it was for the 26-year-old Osborne to write Look Back in Anger.

Jimmy Porter is very hard to get right. If you overdo the venom and self-pity, the audience will retreat into their seats and murmur to themselves: "Oh do shut up!" But the casting is spot on. Osborne could make bad behaviour look honourable and good behaviour look cowardly. Michael Sheen is cornering the market in behaving downright obnoxiously, while hanging on to our interest. He was terrific as Mozart in Amadeus.

Sheen looks scruffy, big-hearted and reckless. He crouches in the armchair like a caged animal. You could imagine his glinting eyes and insolent grin captured in a David Bailey photo from the 1960s. The appeal is essential. You could view Jimmy Porter as a pathological case study of the fears and anxieties of the male heterosexual. But the misogyny is only tolerable if we see the frustrated idealism that provokes it.

Sheen captures these qualities superbly. He has a natural antic disposition. Kenneth Tynan described Jimmy Porter as "the completest young pup in our literature since Hamlet". Trevor Nunn would be mad to let Sheen step outside the building before this young pup has agreed to take on Hamlet.

The rest of the new cast is strong. Emma Fielding plays Jimmy's wife Alison, using silence as an effective weapon of retaliation. Matilda Ziegler gives Alison's friend Helena a terse comic edge as she rebukes Jimmy in terms many of the audience would share. Jason Hughes brings warmth and watchfulness to Jimmy's friend Cliff, and William Gaunt expertly conveys depth and bewilderment as Alison's dad, Colonel Redfern.

The director, Gregory Hersov, captures this faraway world of the provincial 1950s, where nothing was open on a Sunday and women automatically ironed men's shirts. The play tends to sag when Sheen's character is off-stage but then Osborne's ferocious talent was as narrow as it was deep.

The author of Pack of Lies, Breaking the Code and Letter of Resignation is no stranger to deceit, enigma and adultery. Hugh Whitemore revisits all these themes in his latest play, Disposing of the Body. It is an intriguing mystery about a woman who disappears. Disposing of the Body offers the rare pleasure of standing around in the interval wondering what's going to happen in Act Two.

Stephen Moore and Charlotte Cornwell play the London couple who take early retirement and move to the country. They soon become friends with a local schoolmaster (David Horovitch) and his wife (Gemma Jones). Whitemore's play has several hazardous goals. Thanks to this skilled cast and Robin Lefevre's direction it achieves them all.

The play asks us to empathise with the marital problems of middle-aged middle-class people living in comparative comfort in Gloucestershire. It presents a love-affair between two grey-haired people as an unapologetically sexy event. And the play leaves us with one strand neatly unresolved.

`Last Dance At Dum Dum': New Ambassadors, WC2 (0171 836 6111) to 28 Aug; `Look Back in Anger': RNT Lyttelton, SE1 (0171 452 3000) in rep to 11 Sept; `Disposing of the Body': Hampstead, NW3 (0171 722 9301) to 28 Aug