The Mendes tank grinds to a halt

To the Green Fields Beyond | Donmar Warehouse, London The Beautiful Game | Cambridge Theatre, London The Country Wife | Crucible, Sheffield
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The Independent Culture

If England expects that every man will do his duty, director Sam Mendes has surely come through with flying colours. Having triumphed in Hollywood with American Beauty, he staunchly informed Tinseltown's dollar-waving moguls that he was heading back to his original post, running the Donmar Warehouse in London.

If England expects that every man will do his duty, director Sam Mendes has surely come through with flying colours. Having triumphed in Hollywood with American Beauty, he staunchly informed Tinseltown's dollar-waving moguls that he was heading back to his original post, running the Donmar Warehouse in London.

This week we should duly be greeting his return to stage directing with hysterical fanfares of trumpets. But, I regret to say, it's hard to get that excited about To the Green Fields Beyond, a new play about a First World War tank crew written by Nick Whitby. Basically, Whitby's doomed soldiers sit out the night in a French wood, knowing tomorrow's battle will be their last. We watch them suppressing their fears, being grilled by a snooping American journo (Paul Venables), then debating the radical idea that they could elect not to drive into the jaws of death.

The playwright proves he's done his research, endowing his characters with period slang and technical patter about Lewis guns and FL manoeuvres. Moreover, at the outset, this script looks set to be a gritty exposé countering any lingering notions that those were days of thoroughly decent chaps. Ray Winstone's cockney Ain is mouthy, a bedraggled whore is brought in to service the lads, and Dougray Scott, playing their Scots commander, goes AWOL on drugs.

What's disappointing is Whitby then lapses back into a comforting vision. Our crew find pearls of poetic wisdom in Blake's Songs Of Innocence and old school pro patria mori morals are strongly upheld. There are moments of pathos and earthy humour, and Whitby bravely takes on grand themes like progress, principles and xenophobia. However, he engineers rounds of philosophising and works up to plot twists with all the agility of - well - a clunking, vintage tank. The high-calibre cast cannot camouflage this, even if their acting is quietly detailed, even if Mendes sets the scene with assured simplicity and even if designer Anthony Ward's silver birches, lit by pale moonshine, look exquisite.

Over at the Cambridge Theatre, more boys are going to war in The Beautiful Game, the new Lloyd Webber musical. Sir Andrew's rather surprising collaboration with Ben Elton is about football, Fenianism and love. In Belfast in the late Sixties, a horde of keen adolescents play soccer. Unhappily, these matches are accompanied by locker-room religious skirmishes which later develop into serious sectarian divisions, fatal attacks and internment. West Side Story-style, clan hostilities threaten to defeat sweethearts too.

Lloyd Webber is one of the theatrical world's easiest targets, being accused of gross sentimentality, amongst other things. And, to be sure, The Beautiful Game is hideously sugary, as our romantic protagonists, John and Mary (David Shannon and Josie Walker), get cute. Yet, there are refreshing aspects to this show. Forget Sir Andrew's latter-day blockbuster sets. The stage is a bare, charred brick arena. The young cast belt out their opening stadium anthem with vigour and their footwork (choreographed by Meryl Tankard) sometimes neatly blends mimed headers with twitchy contemporary dance. Furthermore, in this instance, Lloyd Webber actually endows his score with some cultural integrity as he incorporates the harmonies of traditional Irish airs, hymns and marching bands. "Our Kind of Love", sung by pacifist lasses, is an irresistibly touching ballad.

The let-down is that the composer keeps slipping back into his old ways with trademark orchestral crescendos and wearisome pop-rock beats. This seems particularly ironic since The Beautiful Game laments Northern Ireland's failure to move on. As for Ben Elton's book and lyrics: we aren't talking witty sophistication. He's didactic and simplistic. Centuries of tricky Anglo-Irish relations are reduced to one or two soundbites about Cromwell, lobbed between songs. Still, this musical does grasp a thorny issue and, whilst Elton's rhyming couplets are mostly trite, occasionally they strike home as universal truths.

Finally at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre, there's an excellent, lusty revival of William Wycherley's Restoration comedy The Country Wife. Here, the main social divide is between amoral cosmopolitans and rustic fools. The crabbily possessive Mr Pinchwife (David Ross) struggles to fence in his young rural bride, Margery (Victoria Hamilton), when they come up to town. But his repressive regime makes her rebel and she's shamelessly delighted when the roving gallant, Horner (Dominic West), starts prowling around.

Michael Grandage's sunny production fails to probe this satire's darker side. But, overall, his ensemble are terrifically lively. In frock coats and fine silks, yet unencumbered by periwigs or archaic mannerisms, their wantonness seems startlingly natural and modern.

West is persuasively sexy with a hint of sleaziness, smirking and sweeping ladies off their feet. Meanwhile, the diminutive Hamilton - the Judi Dench of her generation - is an absolute joy. Hyperactively galumphing around her chambers on a hobby horse - one minute giggling breathlessly and the next stroppily huffing and puffing when denied new-found pleasures - her Margery is both a hilarious bumpkin and an adorable passionate innocent. Priceless.

* 'To the Green Fields Beyond': Donmar Warehouse, WC2 (020 7369 1732) to 25 Nov; 'The Beautiful Game': Cambridge Theatre, WC2 (020 7494 5080) to 31 Mar; 'The Country Wife': Crucible, Sheffield (0114 249 6000) to 14 Oct

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