Androcles and the Lion, The Scoop, London

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The Independent Culture

How's this for a string of tempting deals along London's South Bank?

How's this for a string of tempting deals along London's South Bank? At the National Theatre you can take advantage of the excellent Travelex season which offers seats for £10 in the Olivier. It costs a mere fiver to watch the proceedings as a groundling in the yard at Shakespeare's Globe. And still further downriver, there's the biggest bargain of all. They don't even pass round a hat at the two free open-air productions given by the Steam Industry in the Scoop, the charming stone amphitheatre in precincts of City Hall and close to Tower Bridge.

The season is the brainchild of artistic director Phil Willmott. He used the space last year as the setting for an impromptu production of Oedipus. The show proved such a hit with the public that now he's back. This time, though, there's a rep consisting of Aeschylus' Agamemnon and Shaw's Androcles and the Lion - Greek tragedy played off against a Roman romp full of GBS's brand of brainy buffoonery set at a time when the early Christians were proving that, in showbiz terms, one should never work with animals. The latter piece is winning but tricky. After all, pantomime doesn't normally come sprinkled with ideas about power and persecution, nor horseplay dotted with piquant reflections on the significance of martyrdom.

Willmott's broad, but delightfully entertaining production largely solves the problem with its a clever mix of Carry On, Cleo camp and quick-witted farce. There's an adorable life-size puppet of the title creature, worked by two of the actors with sticks, for the framing fable about Androcles (Scott Harvey), who pacifies a lion in the wild by removing a thorn from its paw and then years later has to confront the same beast in the Coliseum. This climactic encounter is wittily staged here as a miniature puppet show with present day-style sports commentators.

There's mischievous updating throughout. The Director of the Coliseum (Nick Smithers) is a scarf-trailing luvvie who seems to be ancient Rome's answer to Dale Winton. With a delicious comic touch, Stewart Alexander plays Ferrovius, the muscular convert who relapses to the worship of Mars, as a bullishly born-again American revivalist enthusing a band of happy-clappy Christians. None of these anachronisms are gratuitous, for Shaw's pseudo-Rome is a playful pretext for pointing up how such patterns of behaviour - persecution conducted in the name of religious principle but actually the product of brute political opportunism - recur perpetually.

The likeably idiosyncratic cast round off the show in sublimely silly style with an elating chorus that fuses "When The Saints Go Marching In" and the naff classic "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". I was going to say that it alone is worth the price of a ticket, but that doesn't apply here. Why not a-wim-away down?

To 5 September