Theatre: Class warfare of a man on the make

On The Fringe
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The Independent Culture
USUALLY IT'S easy enough to shrug off jibes about the Fringe, to rebuff those pitying looks suggesting that anyone regularly venturing into the primitive world of pub theatre must be more masochist than aesthete. But there are times when the sceptics seem to have the upper hand. How on earth do you justify a night out that involves sitting in a chair fixed at a right angle to the action, straining to watch the adaptation of a novel set in 1947 that was written in 1957, made into a film a year later and subsequently rehashed as a Seventies TV series?

Staging John Braine's Room at the Top this late in the century isn't necessarily an exercise in cultural necrophilia, however deadly the seating arrangement of the King's Head. The taboos confronted by Braine's sexually adventurous central character, Joe Lampton, as he tries to break through the class barrier, may seem remote but they are not out of sight.

The 25-year-old town-hall accountant risks antagonising the denizens of Warley, Yorkshire for trying to "run two women at once": Alice Aisgill, a married actress 10 years his senior, and Susan Brown, the daughter of the town's most prominent industrialist. Dalliances of this nature may be unlikely to earn overt disapproval nowadays, but it would be complacent to imagine that that tut-tutting mentality does not still persist.

Above all, Lampton himself speaks beyond the post-war years: he is the archetypal man on the make, who puts material advantage before true romance and has to live with the consequences. That he is a rather obvious actor is underlined by the fact that he meets his lovers through the local dramatic society.

However, rather like something put on by the Warley Thespians, Roy Marsden's production of Andrew Taylor's episodic version lacks the vim to bring out the dramatic conflict that sustains this story's relevance. Above all, it lacks sexual chemistry, a vital factor in persuading us that Joe Lampton is driven as much by redeeming, if transgressive, desire as he is by plain greed - and that he is ultimately riven by denied emotion. This is not entirely the fault of the cast: Simon Lenagan lends the lady- magnet Joe a rough inscrutability and Tara Moran's Susan is a suitably doe-eyed innocent thirsty for experience. In these explicit times, it is hard to locate an authentically risque level of suggestiveness (Joe's sauciest proposition is, sadly, a feel of his "fine piece of china"). But Marsden has opted for a too-cautious hedonism - there simply is not enough illicit thrill to bear the cliched burden of exchanges such as "You beautiful uncomplicated brute", "Not really, I'm just a crazy, mixed- up kid."

That said, in some areas the play doesn't compare too unfavourably to the film, which starred Simone Signoret and Laurence Harvey, particularly the accents (not nearly as RP). And though the King's Head stage can offer only a grimy backdrop rather than grim exterior shots, a sense of dowdy community is ably suggested by the ancillary characters, particularly Jonathon Sims' caddish Jack, and Raymond Sawyer's bureaucrat, Mr Hoylake. "This is a bit like Chekhov, sitting round the samovar, talking about life," the latter confides to Joe. Well, not quite.

There is a lot of standing around, listening, in Foxhole, a first play by Dominic Wallis, although in its setting - a godforsaken NY bar - and its predilection for long monologues, it is more reminiscent of The Iceman Cometh than of Uncle Vanya. Possibly the longest establishing scene in history - an interminable audit by the manic bartender Leo (Mark Benson) - gives way to a ho-hum comedy in which malcontents whine away, heedless of water flooding the basement and imperiling their lives. The cast impressively run the gamut of barfly reactions and loan the dialogue comic credibility. A kind of sitcom in search of gags - "Cheerless" if you will - it none the less marks Scooting Owl theatre company as one to watch.

`Room at the Top', King's Head, N1 (0171-226 1916); `Foxhole', Old Red Lion, EC1 (0171-837 7816)