Things to do in Denver when you're Greek

<preform>Fallen Angels | Apollo, London </br>The Captain's Tiger | Orange Tree, Richmond </br>Tantalus | Centre for Performing Arts, Denver</preform>
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The Independent Culture

We begin with the tinkling of silver cutlery on bone china. Marital life looks frightfully well-bred and orderly at the start of Noël Coward's euphorically funny, Champagne-fuelled comedy, Fallen Angels which is now playing at the West End's Apollo, starring Felicity Kendal and Frances de la Tour.

We begin with the tinkling of silver cutlery on bone china. Marital life looks frightfully well-bred and orderly at the start of Noël Coward's euphorically funny, Champagne-fuelled comedy, Fallen Angels which is now playing at the West End's Apollo, starring Felicity Kendal and Frances de la Tour.

It's a sunny, quiet morning at the Sterrolls' spotless Mayfair flat - a creamy affair with soaring Grecian columns. Kendal's elegant Julia is leisurely perusing the papers while her husband Fred (mild James Woolley) is being served breakfast by the new maid, Saunders.

However, this idyll is slightly disrupted. Fred's knife and fork are starting to grate and Saunders (Tilly Tremayne on fine form) is proving outrageously supercilious. Moreover, just before Mr S pops out of town for a few days of golf, Julia insists on having an alarming little chat about the difference between long-wedded fondness and passion.

Before the night is out, Julia and her old friend Jane (de la Tour) will be roaring drunk and libidinously scrapping over their shared old flame, a French Lothario called Maurice (a smarmy Stephen Greif).

It has to be said Fallen Angels is incorrigibly light fare. Domestic wretchedness, dismay and lust never go more than skin deep. No hearts - or dinner sets - get broken here. Today's theatre-goers, unlike Coward's original audience, are hardly going to be shocked by women getting plastered and not being virgin-brides. Also Coward's farcical structures are too schematically simple (even in this 1950s version which expanded on his youthful script of 1924).

Nevertheless, the central drinking scene is still an exhilarating heady delight. Directed by Michael Rudman, Frances de la Tour's performance is a storming mix of wild abandon, comic inventiveness and sharp timing as she slumps further and further over her cocktails, gruffly guffaws then lurches around like a rampant earthworm in evening dress.

Kendal is less liberated but she skids about terrifically in a flurry of stiletto heels and satin. Her cherubic prettiness is also a lovely foil for the equine, towering de la Tour. There's one beautifully tender moment as well when they sleepily ballroom-dance like schoolgirls - maybe tangentially alluding to the fact that Fallen Angels' extramaritally "illicit" love triangle was based on a bisexual one in Coward's own life. All in all, a scintillating long-neglected gem.

The Orange Tree in Richmond has, meanwhile, landed the latest play by the South Africa's Athol Fugard. The Captain's Tiger is inspired by the sexagenarian's own memories of his early years as a sailor.

Lanky Ben Warwick eagerly portrays the Author as a Young Man, aka Tiger. In old plimsolls and safari shorts, he enthusiastically waves goodbye to his homeland and works his way round the world on a steamship as the Captain's manservant or "Tiger".

This is a rite of passage. En route Tiger becomes buddies with a black engineer called Donkeyman who labours in the engine room. He also struggles to pen a fictional work romantically based on a photograph of his mother. Halfway through he has his first affair - with a loveable port prostitute.

Sometimes a senior version of the Author (silver-haired Peter Gale) watches over Warwick. Additionally, our budding writer is visited by the spectre of Betty (Leah Muller), his heroine-in-progress who won't comply with the false "improved" life her creator/ son imposes on her.

Fugard's conceit is smart - writing a play about learning to write the play that we are watching. Sporadically one also glimpses a psychoanalytically critical self-portrait. Annoyed by writer's block, Tiger briefly shouts at Chad Shepherd's almost maternally encouraging Donkeyman. And trying to boss Betty around, he's a would-be imperialist in the land of fiction.

But most worries are just swept under the carpet with a mellow smile. I felt uncomfortable about Donkeyman's admiring passive role and about Betty flatteringly concluding the Author knows how to handle her now.

Director Auriol Smith's cast, crossing oceans on a simple square of decking, are warmly humorous and perhaps Fugard is following Betty's advice against hyping up reality. Yet surely one needs more conflicts to stop this show dwindling into a smug love-in.

As theatrical voyages go, The Captain's Tiger is just a stroll round the block compared to Tantalus. This 12-hour epic by John Barton, directed by Peter Hall, is currently playing in Colorado at Denver's Centre for the Performing Arts. It tours the UK in the new year (co-presented by the Denver Centre and the RSC).

This mythical-historical saga about the Trojan War and its aftermath explains mankind's suffering by going right back to the creation of the universe and the Olympian ire provoked by Agamemnon's ancestor, Tantalus. The latter, it will be remembered, spectacularly fell from the Gods' grace when he stole some ambrosia from a heavenly banquet: his fate was to languish for an eternity in Hell, perpetually thirsty, and with a stone suspended above him. Agamemnon, leader of the Greek armies against Priam's Trojans, is mindful of the sins of the forefathers.

Hall's production has itself, ironically, been fraught with long-running tussles. One leading player departed angrily, not keen on the employment of masks. Mick Gordon, appointed to assist with the directing, dematerialised. Then Barton signed off, wounded by the cutting and redrafting of his text by Hall and his dramaturge Colin Teevan.

The end result, however, is impressive. Barton's storytelling - piecing together and filling in the gaps of a lost pre-Sophoclean cycle - is playful, philosophical and full of intriguingly obscure episodes. For instance, Pyrrhus, who's best known as a sword-wielding avenger admired by Hamlet, is seen here slipping into Troy comically disguised as a maiden.

Stylistic jolts do occur and Alan Dobie is a dud Odysseus. There's also a whiff of condescension about the framing device (not Barton's). This has the Chorus starting off as bikini-clad babes on a modern Greek beach who are slowly drawn in by David Ryall's yarn-spinning hawker-narrator.

Still, their involvement neatly links the nine plays. Ryall is a charmingly wise old rogue with an easy yet vivid turn of phrase. Ann Mitchell makes a ferocious Hecuba and Greg Hicks is terrifically assured and wryly satirical, sporting an eerie flesh-pink mask and leading the company as both the beleaguered Agamemnon and old Priam. Not mind-blowing, but mighty fine.

'Fallen Angels': Apollo, W1 (020 7494 5070), to 25 April, 2001; 'The Captain's Tiger': Orange Tree, Richmond (020 8940 3633), to 25 November; 'Tantalus': Denver Centre for the Performing Arts, Denver, Colorado, then touring the UK, starting at the Lowry Centre, Salford (0161 876 2000), on 22 January, 2001 and ending at the Barbican, EC2 (020 7638 8891), on 14 May 2001

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