Theatre: Arguments of character

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The Independent Culture
FIRST PUBLISHED in 1761, Rameau's Nephew by Denis Diderot originally took the form of an imaginary philosophical debate between the author and the much younger man of the title, a structure which translator and director, Phoebe von Held, has left essentially intact.

The action lies in argument - over the responsibilities of genius, the merits of morality vs. self-gratification, conformity vs. individual freedom - articulated through half-androgynous, half-wilfully gender-bending performances from Alexandra Belcourt and Candida Benson.

The setting is a cafe with three variously scratched or polished mirrors providing visual echoes of the cat-and-mouse play dialogue. The two highly unreliable narrators keep us guessing as to whether they're striking attitudes, arguing in earnest or slyly reflecting back what's most expedient to reveal.

Benson brings an unpredictable intensity to the nephew. Assuming a restless, chameleon-like array of postures and guises, she forcefully communicates her character's growing desperation. Belcourt plays a straighter, quieter foil to all this spleen and pantomime, indulgently encouraging his companion to bitch and aphorise. However, her air of relaxed urbanity at times seems too indulgent to suit the character's presumption of the upper hand.

Widely regarded as the finest of Edgar Allan Poe's "tales of the grotesque and arabesque", The Fall of the House of Usher famously revels in its own Gothic extravagance. This is redoubled in Jon Pope's luridly sepulchral adaptation, combining an authentically creepy aura of menace with beautifully understated touches of Rocky Horror comedy.

Making full use of Poe's richly portentous descriptions, while adding its own incestuous twist, the production plays the piece simultaneously straight and sidelong. Pacing and emphasis aren't always quite as finely calibrated as they might be, but when they are, one realises that Pope's tongue, like Poe's, is at least periodically in his cheek and the effect is simply delectable.

The work of Ena Lamont Stewart, Glaswegian clergyman's daughter and librarian- turned-playwright - now in her 80s - has steadily been acquiring modern- classic status in Scotland ever since 7:84's acclaimed 1982 revival of Men Should Weep, premiered 35 years earlier. Giles Havergal, in charge of this latest, main-house revival, has likened it to a Glaswegian Juno and the Peacock.

It's a valid comparison in terms of theme and treatment: the single, slum-kitchen setting; the family strained by poverty; and the interplay of comedy with calamity. Everything depends on the writer's relish for the eloquence of demotic expression.

Uncharacteristically for the Citizens', however, the production coarsens the telling of its tale, stumbling repeatedly into its lurking pitfalls of sentimentality or playing for laughs. The rocky fortunes of the extended Morrison clan, complete with an out-of-work father, a tubercular son, a daughter going to the bad and an endlessly girning granny, form the vehicle for much heavy-handed characterisation.

Yet it's not a blanket criticism. Barbara Rafferty and Matt Costello, playing the parents, achieve a distinctive air of embattled dignity and love. Anne Myatt, as a stern but essentially good-hearted spinster aunt, uses this semi-detached perspective to add both gravity and pity to the proceedings. But several other characters fall prey to exaggeration or stereotype, diminishing the drama's potentially visceral impact. .

To 17 October 0141-429 0022

Sue Wilson