A Shot Of Genius, Sound Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

As well as short bursts of genius, actual shots figure in these one-act plays by Joe Orton, Chekhov and Pirandello, in which three despondent men hesitantly, clumsily court death.

In The Night Before the Trial, Zaytsev anticipates his hearing the next day for bigamy, forgery and attempted murder, while fondling a gun that will, if he is found guilty, provide him with a happier alternative to Siberia. In what may be his last few hours, he is determined to seize what life has to offer - a silly, pretty woman who is staying at his inn. To seduce her, Zaytsev must overcome his anxieties, her husband - and bedbugs.

The Ruffian on the Stair and The Man with a Flower in His Mouth similarly balance terror and comedy - Orton's mysterious intruder is believed by a housewife to be a rapist, when he is really interested in herIrish boyfriend; the man in Pirandello's play, who seems at first to be the village bore, has a darker purpose for his conversation with a stranded traveller.

Unfortunately, the quiet intensity that should pervade all these plays is absent; in its place is noisy superficiality. The Russian woman is swooshed into an embrace more suitable for Come Dancing by Zaytsev. The Irish hard man has an accent that would be excessive in a comedy skit, curls his lip, squares his shoulders and barks. One cannot believe that he exists, much less that he could casually commit murder yet feel superior to those who go in for casual sex.

The Pirandello play lacks the other dramas' opportunities for broad gestures; all the loquacious stranger can do is shout and wave his walking stick. The beauty and pity, however, that are as important to Pirandello as ambiguity, are missing in this portrayal of a man whose life is ebbing away as he speaks.

For so much overacting to so little effect, the director must take more blame than the performers. In the production notes for his play, Orton insisted that it be "directed and acted with absolute realism... and complete lack of any suggestion of humour. Only this way can a mixture of comedy and menace be achieved." It's still good advice.

To 20 May (0870 890 0503)

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