All That Fall, Jermyn Street Theatre, London
Scenes from an Execution, NT Lyttelton, London
Desire Under the Elms, Lyric Hammersmith, London

A Beckett radio play intimately staged lacks vision, but a rare O'Neill revival is enthralling

This has to be major news: a play by Samuel Beckett that has never been staged, till now. Check out the casting, too: Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon, no less, directed by Trevor Nunn. A queue of theatre fans, hoping for returns, was already snaking up the street last week, outside Jermyn Street's off-West End producing house.

Yes, but hang on. There's a reason why no playhouse has hitherto presented All That Fall. It's a radio drama, broadcast by the BBC in 1957. Still, you may say, that's no less reason to be enthused. This episodic journey play – decrepit Mrs Rooney traipses along a country lane, encountering locals then escorting her blind husband back from the railway station – is a work Nunn claims to have waited years to mount. So, he surely has some brilliant ideas on how to bring it to the stage.

Sadly not. The set is a drab black box with a bunch of old-fashioned microphones hanging overhead, The cast only half-pretend to be making a recording. They're in 1950s costumes, with Atkins's long-faced Mrs Rooney, blinking wearily, in baggy cardigan and brown felt hat. Everyone, though, is still script-in-hand, making this little more than a play reading. To call it semi-staged would be generous. Demi-semi-staged perhaps.

Nunn follows Beckett's tongue-in-cheek catalogue of sound effects pretty much to the letter: twittering birds, mooing cows, dragging footsteps, a trundling cart, a car horn, steam trains. These are pre-recorded, so you don't even get the fun of watching DIY creativity.

There's a bit of mime. Atkins sways on the spot, in synch with the amplified footsteps. There's also a car door onstage so we can see the absurd struggle involved in hoisting Mrs Rooney into the passenger seat. However, it would have been funnier left to the imagination. Nunn hasn't, visually, honed the farce.

It's sorely disappointing to think this production is from the same man who made physical theatre seem so inventive and witty in his staging of Nicholas Nickleby three decades ago. That said, someone from Broadcasting House should record Atkins and co. All That Fall is slightly scrappy and meandering, but Atkins's character has some splendid, quirkily poetic and comically gloomy lines. Also, though his Irish accent wobbles, Gambon's Mr Rooney – towering, in thick specs – has a scary temper, and gives the plot a startlingly psychotic twist at the end.

Howard Barker's Scenes from an Execution marks the sexagenarian British dramatist's belated National Theatre debut. Barker has long had a cult following, idiosyncratically running his own troupe, The Wrestling School. His plays have been challenging, violent, deliberately anti-entertaining and elusive.

Galactia, the artist-heroine in Scenes, is a barely disguised self-portrait. She's a non-conformist painter (a pursuit that features on Barker's CV), living in 16th-century Venice. Radically depicting the Battle of Lepanto's gruesomeness, she is punished by the Establishment, as embodied by the doge and a cardinal. They had commissioned a triumphal canvas. Ultimately, though, they switch tactics, undermining her rebel status by embracing Galactia rather than ostracising her.

It is ironic, on a meta-level, that Barker has been brought into the NT fold with this very play, a piece far less radical that his reputation might lead you to expect. It tells Galactia's story straightforwardly, it isn't hard to follow, and it manages to be satirically amusing too.

Leaving aside the major hitch on press night, when the huge, sliding walls of Hildegard Bechtler's set got jammed, Tom Cairns's production is perfectly watchable, with a wonderful central performance by Fiona Shaw. At once vibrant and relaxed, her Galactia is more charmingly boho than self-centred, striding around in a scruffy tunic, or lolling barebreasted in her studio. William Chubb is contrastingly frosty as the cardinal and Tim McInnerny, as the doge, is fantastically volatile, sometime cool as a cucumber, sometimes a sweating bag of nerves.

Lastly, why are there so few stagings of Desire Under the Elms, Eugene O'Neill's 1920s tragedy set on an isolated New England farm? Granted, it has its faults – the tragic climax is narratively rushed and the aggro between the old patriarch Ephraim and his bridling son Eben is heavily indebted to Euripides and Freud. But Sean Holmes's production is enthralling, echoing with melancholy bluegrass guitar. Denise Gough is riveting as Abbie, the aged widower's new bride, with big glinting eyes and tousled blonde curls. Hungry for property, her Abbie amazingly manages to be calculatingly seductive yet never clichéd, gradually revealing a desperate vulnerability. Though Morgan Watkins, as Eben, isn't so complex, their burning desire for each other is electrifying, as they dart between cramped attic bedrooms. Set designer Ian MacNeil's farmhouse – a jigsaw of spinning chambers – boldly mixes stark modernism with battered period furnishings, while Finbar Lynch's Ephraim sounds almost biblical, his rustic dialect infused with a haunting lyricism. Recommended.

'All That Fall' (020-7287 2875) to 3 Nov; 'Scenes from an Execution' (020-7452 3000) to 9 Dec; 'Desire Under the Elms' (020-8741 6850) to 10 Nov

Critic's Choice

Hurry to catch Simon Russell Beale in Shakespeare's riches-to-rags saga Timon of Athens, updated to our era of fat-cat bankers and the Occupy movement, at the NT Olivier (to 31 Oct, and in cinemas nationwide 1 Nov). Beautiful Burnout, Frantic Assembly's high-energy depiction of boxing – part drama, part dance – is at the Artsdepot in north London this week (Tuesday to 19 Oct).

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?