French knickers and a whiff of grapeshot

<i>Madame Melville </i>| Vaudeville, London <i>Napoleon </i>| Shaftsbury, London <i>Wine in the Wilderness </i>| Tricycle, London
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The Independent Culture

Are we stuck on some alarming loop tape? Last week in the West End, we had to suffer George Axelrod's Seven Year Itch with Daryl Hannah playing an American dumb blonde who hangs around an older, vaguely bookish seducer's apartment having an illicit summer fling.

Are we stuck on some alarming loop tape? Last week in the West End, we had to suffer George Axelrod's Seven Year Itch with Daryl Hannah playing an American dumb blonde who hangs around an older, vaguely bookish seducer's apartment having an illicit summer fling.

This week it's déjà vu at the Vaudeville as one finds the same scenario unfolding in Madame Melville. This is a far from perfectly realised, self-directed new memory play by New York's Richard Nelson (formerly acclaimed for Goodnight Children Everywhere).

OK, it's not quite a Groundhog Day-style repeat-play experience. For Nelson's dialogue is sensitive and, with hints of autobiographical nostalgia, his tone is more sentimentally poetic than shallowly comical. He is also implicitly seriously worried about the repercussions of "free love" and, specifically, of formative taboo-breaking liaisons between adults and young adolescents.

In this instance too, our susceptible American has been transported to savvy Paris, the decade is the 1960s not Axelrod's 1950s, and the sexes have swapped around.

Yup, the blond is a boy. Still, the West End's increasing addiction to celebrity casting means he's being played by another B-list Tinseltown star - Macaulay Culkin (latterly the kid in Home Alone, now 20 years old).

Culkin, whose talent consists of looking persistently underage, plays Carl, a culturally and carnally naive 15-year-old from Ohio who waves adieu to innocence as he's taught an extracurricular thing or two chez Madame Claudie Melville. She's his lonely summer-school French mistress, played by Irÿne Jacob (who made her big screen name in , aptly enough, Au Revoir Les Enfants).

Nelson's previous works have sharply depicted displaced US characters, as in his early hit Some Americans Abroad. But, regrettably, here it's Culkin the actor who (after a six-year career hiatus) looks like a fish out of water on stage. He stares at the ground most of the evening and makes a stilted hash of Nelson's would-be lyricism. When narrating he merely transmogrifies into The Winsome Boy, faking dreamy smiles.

Jacob is considerably better. While the playwright makes Claudie pretty bossy and exploitative - countering notions that Americans and males are always the domineering ones - Jacob manages to find the balance with flashes of tenderness and vulnerability. She also points up Nelson's central theme of uncertainty, as she blows hot and cold.

Nevertheless, she could surely create more grippingly ambiguous moments if she taught her keen initiate about jazz or the Impressionists with less cool and a bit more personal fervour. Without the latter, our protagonists' musings about Pierre Bonnard's nudes and Titania's darling forbidden boy in A Midsummer Night's Dream come across as authorial pretentiousness.

Certainly, in a more finely tuned production, Nelson's central scene could crackle with erotic tension as Claudie keeps popping back in while Carl hesitantly tucks up for an overnight stay on her chaise longue. Unfortunately, in my book, Jacob and Culkin go the bottom of the class for scoring zero in sexual chemistry.

Over at the Shaftesbury Theatre, there's another Gallic affair as a big new musical, Napoleon, rolls into town. Here we find General Bonaparte (diminutive Paul Baker) rising, falling and eventually going to pieces militarily - all because he's pining for his Josephine (Anastasia Barzee).

Historians have debated at great length about what drove this continent-conquering emperor. By contrast, English composer Timothy Williams and Canadian lyricist Andrew Sabiston jack up the romance and hack Bonaparte's life down to two-and-a-bit hours of rhyming couplets.

But then, of course, Les Misérables has pulled crowds for years with its sweeping mix of revolutionary clashes and love songs. And Williams and Sabiston are, at least, impressively ambitious newcomers, telling a saga with commendable clarity.

The Olivier Award-winning opera director Francesca Zambello brings a touch of class too, with Michael Yeargan's notably sleek set using scrims and projected slides of antique etchings to transport us from palaces to battle fields.

That said, the startlingly elevating stage floor is raised at the climax only to bemusingly obscure one's view of Boney's final grand gesture.

Baker himself has a sturdy voice and ambitious thrust, highlighting how Napoleon's lust for victorious social climbing destroyed his early egalitarian ideals and his marriage vows to Josephine. Less impressive is his habit of striking poker-backed downstage poses and glaring meaninglessly into the middle distance.

Barzee's Josephine shows some mettle and sings with aplomb, yet she's much more squeaky-clean than Napoleon's famous billet-doux suggested and Zambello just can't resist bathing her in saccharine apricot and pink lighting.

Meanwhile, although David Burt's scheming Tallyrand has a creepy reptilian glint in his eye, this senior minister is really no more than a pantomime villain. What's ultimately most disappointing is that Williams' score, after some enticing duets, resorts to endless melodramatic orchestral crescendos, nabs perky rhythms from Oliver!'s Fagin and churns out much pseudo-Orffic choiring. Hardly musically radical stuff.

More excitingly, at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, we are translated to Harlem in 1964 where street riots form the backdrop to Wine In The Wilderness by the late Obie-winning writer, Alice Childress. Marking Black History Month, this is a winning, regrettably belated world premiere in which Childress turns a critical eye on relations within her own Afro-American community, exposing how hip ideas of black unity and shared roots were riven by that generation's emerging class hierarchies and ingrained sexism.

Nicholas Kent's production brings out both the lively humour and forceful political punch of this distinctly feminist as well as racially analytical piece, as Ricco Ross deftly plays an educated, au courant painter who arrogantly presumes his down-at-heel female model (an impressionable but feisty Jenny Jules) will fit neatly into his latest triptych as an archetypal messed-up urban black woman who's lost her native innocence.

Specially commissioned by the Tricycle, Winsome Pinnock has penned Water to accompany Wine. This short for two black actors is comparatively thin fare with one-sided mobile phone calls at either end and with a rather wooden question-and-answer set-up at its core.

Directed by Surian Fletcher-Jones, Gary McDonald plays feature writer, Ed, who goes to interview a hot Britpack artist (Cecilia Noble) who calls herself SJ and whose paintings allegedly depict her own grim early years roughing it in King's Cross.

McDonald takes a while to warm up, but the ice is broken when he and Noble's easy yet tough SJ shift to groping each other on the carpet. A row develops after Ed learns SJ's self-portraiture is fake. Thus Pinnock intelligently picks up and runs with Childress's worries about art and truth, race and imposed identities.

'Madame Melville': Vaudeville, WC2 (020 7836 9987), booking to 25 Nov; 'Napoleon': Shaftesbury, WC2 (020 7379 5399), booking to 6 Jan; 'Wine In The Wilderness'/ 'Water': Tricycle, NW6 (020 7328 1000), to 11 Nov

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