What's it all about, Alfie?

<i>Alfie </i>| Finborough Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture

Miniskirts - fine, the Beatles - great. But Alfie? How can this tale of a feckless ladies' man, to whom a lady is a "bird" or "it", be palatable today, much less relevant? Only a few minutes into Catriona Craig's slightly underpowered but effective production, however, and one is no longer in doubt. Not only is Alfie still funny, sad, and shocking; its title character retains for us the quality that charms all those birds out of the trees. Though Alfie would be enraged to hear it, what attracts women is the boyish vulnerability that shines through his sexual knowingness. Only one line tells us about his own boyhood, but it is enough. "You're selfish," he tells the mother of his illegitimate son when she changes her mind about giving him up for adoption. "You're thinking about yourself and not about that child." How he wishes, he says, that his own parents had given him away.

Miniskirts - fine, the Beatles - great. But Alfie? How can this tale of a feckless ladies' man, to whom a lady is a "bird" or "it", be palatable today, much less relevant? Only a few minutes into Catriona Craig's slightly underpowered but effective production, however, and one is no longer in doubt. Not only is Alfie still funny, sad, and shocking; its title character retains for us the quality that charms all those birds out of the trees. Though Alfie would be enraged to hear it, what attracts women is the boyish vulnerability that shines through his sexual knowingness. Only one line tells us about his own boyhood, but it is enough. "You're selfish," he tells the mother of his illegitimate son when she changes her mind about giving him up for adoption. "You're thinking about yourself and not about that child." How he wishes, he says, that his own parents had given him away.

Written in 1963, Bill Naughton's play doesn't belong with the decade's later never-ending party but with the resentful working-class dramas of the Fifties. Alfie has no interest in social change, but his endless pursuit of a good time is itself revolutionary against a background of post-war puritanism. Hospitalised for TB, he meets a widower too mean to take his wife on the holiday she longed for, and now guilt-ridden as well as lonely ("We weren't that fond of each other, but we were close."). A married man lives for his wife's weekly visit; she turns up late every time, talks of problems with the drains, and grabs her coat as soon as the bell rings. And despite Alfie's contempt for his own women, one can't disagree that they seem interested in him only as a potential husband and breadwinner. No wonder he is gleeful at being able to drink the milk without buying the cow. As the latest girlfriend cleans his floor while he lounges in a chair, he smiles and says, with sensual pleasure, "Scrub, scrub, scrub."

A very youthful-looking Will Beer, one hand always in his pocket signalling Alfie's repressed emotions, brings out, without overplaying, the character's sweetness (he needs to look less embarrassed, however, at the more misogynous lines). Julia Taudevin is also excellent as the doll-faced but determined unwed mother, and Simon Edwards as the chilly doctor who performs the £25 abortion -- a scene as effective as ever, with Alfie slapping the screaming woman, rushing out, and returning to find the horror in the bucket.

Given the recent concern about our generation's lost boys, Alfie could not, in fact, be more timely. Its frankness is welcome in an age that has balanced its greater explicitness with greater hypocrisy.

To 11 Nov (020-7373 3842).

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