East End devil gets all the best witches

The Witches of Eastwick | <i>Drury Lane Theatre Royal, London</i>; What Every Woman Knows | <i>Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough</i>
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The Witches of Eastwick is a surprise. It is the musical of the movie, which was based on John Updike's novel. John Dempsey and Dana Rowe, who wrote the words and music, are delightfully frank about what survives: "A primary colours version of a very complexly shaded piece of fiction, as far removed from its source material as say Guys and Dolls is from the original Damon Runyon."

The Witches of Eastwick is a surprise. It is the musical of the movie, which was based on John Updike's novel. John Dempsey and Dana Rowe, who wrote the words and music, are delightfully frank about what survives: "A primary colours version of a very complexly shaded piece of fiction, as far removed from its source material as say Guys and Dolls is from the original Damon Runyon."

Its themes are gossip, prudery, lust, betrayal and revenge, with the emphasis on the sex. You don't wake up the following morning humming the tunes, but you are still smiling at some of the jokes, the energetic dancing, and the decent lyrics. The surprising thing about Cameron Mackintosh's latest Drury Lane spectacular is its loyalty to the American musical tradition. It will probably be a hit. Unlike some of his previous successes, this show deserves to be. Although what a critic thinks hardly matters. The Witches of Eastwick has been in the hands of the marketing men for months. Producers like Mackintosh do not spend £4.5m on a show and leave its success or failure to the critics. Good reviews are the icing on the cake, so let's get on with some icing.

The pleasure of a buzzy opening at Drury Lane is that we can see this magnificent theatre again after 10 years of Miss Saigon. There are fine proportions and imposing statues of Shakespeare, Garrick and Kean, all of who might have thought the place had been turned into a circus, when they saw the three witches of Eastwick flying over the stalls at the climax of Act One.

The show works principally because of the witches. They have the best lines, and the best limbs too. There is a reporter from the local paper (Maria Friedman), a music teacher (Joanna Riding) and a sculptor (Lucie Arnaz) who brood over their martini cocktails. When the devil appears in the New England village of Eastwick he possesses their bodies rather than their souls. The director, Eric Schaeffer, doesn't bother the imagination. Jane Riding caresses her breasts before the devil does so and her climax is an explosive, percussive bang. In sexual matters, this is a 21st-century musical. (It is not politically correct, however; there is a good running gag with Gee Williams's dwarf.) Ian McShane's devil is more East End than West, but no one ever said that Lucifer speaks the Queen's English.

When you spend that much, the cast gets new costumes for the curtain call, and the designer, Bob Crowley, is encouraged to spend whatever visual spectaculars cost. His exploding, collapsing church is so well done that I cannot wait for his Götterdämmerung. The choreography by Bob Avian and Stephen Mear is particularly strong in numbers like "Dirty Laundry" and "Dance with the Devil". The music drives the dancing along at a great clip, and it is, perhaps, churlish to complain that it is not memorable. Dempsey and Rowe (both graduates of Ohio State University, for this is not an English musical) are just starting out, and the tunes may well come - as they must if they are to resurrect the American musical comedy from the pit dug for it by Lord Lloyd Webber and his contemporaries.

What every woman knows is that every successful man thought he had climbed the greasy pole all by himself. That was the joke women shared in 1908 when JM Barrie wrote the play which is performed in the round at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. This would have been provocative at the time. Later in the century powerful women became commonplace; now it is virtually redundant. Maggie Wylie, Barrie's Scottish heroine, would be running a privatised bus and rail company today, and spending her millions on educational charities.

Maggie is a strong, opinionated woman who cannot find a husband. Her father and brothers observe that men are nervous of remarkable women. So the author of Peter Pan contrives a perfectly fantastic solution. The men of the family offer John Shand, a penurious student, a deal: they will finance his education at a cost of £300 a year for five years on condition that he marries Maggie at the end of it. He is as good as his word. They marry, and she becomes a political wife. She puts the jokes in his speeches, and the steel in his backbone. His career prospers.

Maggie is a splendid part and Jackie Morrison gets it right. She is proud and humble, manic and submissive, and it is the contradictions in her character that make her interesting. Shand - who speaks Barrie's immortal line, "there are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make" - falls for Lady Sybil, an upper class popsy. (Diana Morrison looks perfect, like a portrait by Whistler.) Shand is purposeful and humourless (Mark Healey has him down pat), but Maggie decides that she will save him and his career. When she has done so, Shand is incredulous. The power of women is no longer a secret.

What Every Woman Knows was planned as one of an ambitious season of plays, one from each decade of the 20th century. That would have given Barrie's play the context it needs, because it doesn't seem substantial enough to stand on its own, but the Stephen Joseph did not have enough money to finance the whole season. None the less, it deserves an audience because Barrie makes a point that leads - however indirectly and 60 years later - to women's liberation.

Despite the invigorating influence of its artistic director, Alan Ayckbourn, the Stephen Joseph is not immune from the frightening spiral of decline in the provincial theatre outside London. Falling subsidies have meant fewer productions; less choice means smaller audiences. Fear of failure becomes obsessive. But the reverse is also true. Higher subsidies means more plays, larger audiences and the chance to take artistic risks. Next week Chris Smith is expected to announce that the Arts Council is to be given an extra £20m for the provincial theatre. It may not be too late, but it has been a close run thing.

'The Witches of Eastwick': Drury Lane Theatre Royal, WC2 (020 7494 5000); 'What Every Woman Knows': Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (01723 370541), 23-27 July, 3-5 August

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