THEATRE / California screamin'

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AT THE Almeida a great set (by Julian McGowan) meets the eye: three pale, asymmetrical panels surmounted by a dead sun and imprinted with a collage of mutating cars. It could be a scorched negative or an involuntary post-nuclear mural: the mangled image of a civilisation stamped on its own ruins at the moment of extinction, and now illuminated by tacky pink strip- lighting. The location is California, but the effect is as if someone had set up a girlie-bar on the ashes of Pompeii.

The same sense of posthumous existence, of insect life continuing in the wake of some atavistic calamity, runs through Han Ong's The LA Plays. It is a world of cold, disconnected figures coming briefly together when they can be of use to one another, and then returning to glacial isolation. The rules of exchange undergo unpredictable alteration. An authoritarian interview can turn into an act of seduction. No sooner does a character appear vulnerable than he shows himself to be armour-plated. Everyone is acting; defences are never dropped. One false move and you wind up behind bars or at the mercy of some freak. Here is a place where 'death breaks the speed limit', and even the laughing effigy of Marilyn Monroe wears a skull mask.

What brings this Dantean vision down to earth is the identity of Ong's protagonist, Greg, a Chinese male prostitute. Unqualified even to achieve his ambition of becoming a pharmaceutical messenger, he finds himself in a world of meaningless encounters and aimless movement from one solitude to another. To the outsider, any society looks alienated. 'I go from place to place,' he says. 'I see all these people, but I don't know what they mean.' Precisely. In the first play, In a Lonely Country, Greg meets a succession of Los Angeles clients and informs his friend Nick that the place is killing him. In the second play, Short List of Alternative Places, he lands in jail in New Mexico and gratefully makes it back to Los Angeles, 'where the noise is', only to find that Nick is dying of Aids.

If you presented that picaresque string of incidents as a linear narrative, it would collapse. Ong's astute move is to frame each episode as a self- contained scene. Characters themselves are framed - separated by cage bars and making contact only by intercom. Scenes generally finish on a note of cryptic irresolution, implying there is much more to be revealed if only Ong chose to lift the veil. The presence of meaning is implied; and the spectator is tempted into making it up for himself.

Matthew Lloyd's production is ably led by Francois Chau as the elusive hero who says yes to everything; and there is a fine array of creepily assertive clients and officials from Stefan Bednarczyk, Tony Guilfoyle, and Okon Jones. The show is an impressive stylistic exercise in the service of a text that strikes me as a clever cheat.

Encouraged by a contemporary drawing of Titus Andronicus depicting togas alongside Elizabethan suits of armour, Stephen Unwin locates his English Touring Theatre Hamlet in a sartorial Clapham Junction of trunk hose, jeans, ruffs, and floppy sweaters. The effect, coupled with Bunny Christie's denuded platform stage, is to rob the show of any sense of place; and it is at its weakest in the Ghost and Play scenes, where Elsinore most needs to be a tangible presence. Diverse costuming has its uses, though, in releasing individual energy, particularly from those characters who try to appropriate the tragedy for themselves.

Alan Cumming might take it as a compliment to be told that his Hamlet is no prince. With his blade-like face, consciously gauche movement and infallible comic timing, what he offers is the hero as an adolescent egoist: not feeling what he is supposed to feel, and then ambushed by his unsuspected passions. But as the performance is built from a calculated sequence of contrasts (false exit reversals, smile freezing in mid- handshake etc) its effect becomes increasingly mechanical.

This is not the case with the other leads, whose interlocking destinies form the production's most engrossing aspect. Pip Donaghy's Claudius is a comprehensively imagined villain. His opening speech introduces half a dozen sides of the character, all variously showing that Claudius never thinks of anyone but himself. From that point the performance rises in an arc, reaching a huge climax in the prayer scene and subsiding into sluggish despair. Against that pattern, Trevor Baxter's Polonius cuts in the opposite direction, as the prospect of spying excites him to boyish exhilaration, just as it throws Claudius into panic. Similarly Eleanor Bron's Gertrude, who is exclusively obsessed with Claudius from the start and collapses on to his shoulders after Polonius's death in an unstoppable fit of frantic weeping. He seems to be comforting her; then he steps away and lets her crumple to the ground, his mind on things more important than her distress. Wonderful.

In Eurovision, written and directed by Tim Luscombe, two gays visit Rome for the song contest and go on to reunite the unquiet spirits of the Emperor Hadrian and his favourite, Antinous, through their pop song counterparts. If you are already confused, then you will have some idea of what to expect from this top-heavy theatrical folly. Luscombe was evidently aiming at hard-edged Italian farce, but he has scuppered the attempt through crazily contradictory elaboration and an underlying sentimental fable. Anita Dobson, as a glittery television presenter, notches up a few embarrassment gags. There are a couple of dreadful songs ('Grazie, Macedonia'). A glum night out.

'The LA Plays': Almeida (071- 359 4404). 'Hamlet': Donmar (071-867 1150). 'Eurovision': Vaudeville (071-836 9987).

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