Anne Boleyn, Shakespeare's Globe, London<br/>The Prince of Homburg, Donmar Warehouse, London<br/>The Railway Children, Waterloo Station, London

Boleyn's is a bloody tale, but oh, what a spring in its step
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

An execution is virtually de rigueur, darlings.

It's become the coup de théâtre of choice this summer, a ghoulish fad for seeing the axe fall in dramatic style – ironically, even as the arts community waits to get it in the neck from swingeing government cuts.

On-stage at the National, heads are already rolling in Danton's Death by Büchner (reviewed last week). And now here comes Anne Boleyn, the Globe's absorbing new English history play penned by Howard Brenton, who has made a prolific, sexuagenarian comeback (and, in fact, also adapted the Büchner).

We all know that Henry VIII's second wife is destined for the block, of course. Yet this biodrama has a humorous spring in its step, at once vivacious and mellow. Brenton wears his learning lightly and avoids lumbering expositions. The ghost of Anne in a white nightgown – played with charming confidence by Miranda Raison (late of Spooks) – sashays in as a prologue, casually swinging a gore-sodden bag under her arm. "Do you want to see it?" she asks us with a teasing smile, reaching in for the expected, severed head.

Her instant rapport with the audience goes down a treat, and makes instantly palatable Brenton's bold switches between his comical and more intensely poetic passages. "The sword sang. In the air. For a second," she says, remembering her death.

From there we jump back in time to her seven-year romance with Henry VIII during which she astonishingly manages, as a young lady-in-waiting, to keep the lusty monarch (Anthony Howell) panting for satisfaction until he ditches Catherine of Aragon and the Pope to boot.

Raison effortlessly portrays a kaleidoscopic personality. Her Anne is sometimes a mercilessly ambitious coquette (as damning historians would have it), but Brenton's line is that Anne was also a clandestine Lutheran, on a mission to rid the land of Roman Catholics. He pictures her meeting, in a forest, with the outlawed heretic William Tyndale. Then she introduces the King to his riskily radical but handily anti-Papist tracts.

Taking the long view, Brenton also leaps forward to the Jacobean era, where James Garnon plays James I as a dandy-clown with Scottish gusto: a gay cross-dresser who farcically twitches recalling his traumatising Presbyterian tutor. At the same time, he is haunted by Anne's spectre and embroiled in her legacy. He ultimately negotiates a canny compromise between the nation's rabid, hilariously petty factions of Church of England divines and Puritans, ordering Tyndale's translation to serve as the starting point his new English Bible.

Brenton's narrative is historically illuminating as well as imaginatively free-wheeling, portraying (like Danton's Death) pure ideals muddied by human cravings and realpolitik. Maybe Henry is let off too easily, and Howell's striding around is perfunctory. Still, director John Dove's ensemble are mostly excellent. The great pillars on the Globe's stage have bewitchingly morphed into a greenwood, and bells chime from the musicians' gallery on high.

But, mein Gott!, is the titular royal going get the chop too in The Prince of Homburg (1810), a military drama by Büchner's compatriot Heinrich von Kleist? He leads a triumphant cavalry charge and has dreamed of being crowned with laurels. But the Prussian Elector, his surrogate pater, only greets him with a court martial.

In the Donmar's revival of this intriguingly mercurial drama, Charlie Cox's prince is naively bewildered, but he fails to follow his superior's commands in the battle. He's an impetuous and emotional Romantic upstart, not fit for purpose in the Elector's rigorously orderly regime.

Ian McDiarmid is horribly chilly as the Elector: his performance a sort of tour de force in clenched froideur, seething underneath. He hints at psychological wheels within wheels, with a flicker of malicious game-playing in the iced-over eyes then a creepily tender farewell kiss. Unfortunately, Cox's performance is less probing, portraying a feckless posh boy who grows up fast but not one who seems really terrified at the prospect of a firing squad.

Even so, Jonathan Munby's production is gorgeous to look at, with Napoleonic era uniforms, swagged with brocade, and cream silk, empire-line dresses (design by Angela Davies). The shifts in tone, between high drama, droll satire, and strange sleepwalking episodes, keep you constantly on your toes. And Dennis Kelly's new English version ensures this moral problem play ends on a sharply bleak note.

Lastly, the authorities have unjustly taken Daddy away – something to do with state secrets (but he'll be let out of prison in the end, of course) in The Railway Children. E Nesbit's much-loved classic is enchantingly brought to life, as a family show, at Waterloo Station, deftly adapted by Mike Kenny. The ex-Eurostar terminal may not sound prepossessing, but director Damian Cruden's set designer, Joanna Scotcher, delightfully recreates an Edward-ian rural station, complete with signal box, picket fencing, and a small iron bridge.

The audience is banked on the platforms, as Sarah Quintrell's perky Roberta and her two siblings – adult actors smoothly sliding into flashback – recall those childhood years in Yorkshire, when their mother (a stressed Caroline Harker) struggled to make ends meet, but when they had topping adventures and everyone was kind (especially David Baron's courteous Old Gentleman).

The spectacular highlight of this show is, undeniably, a full-scale, glorious, green and gold steam train puffing into view out of the darkness. Nonetheless, the theatrical inventiveness is almost as winning, with the embankment landslide recreated with a mountain of suitcases. The lessons the children learn, concerning courage and charity, are also far less twee than I remember, relieved by plenty of impish humour.

'Anne Boleyn' (020-7401 9919) to 21 Aug; 'The Prince of Homburg' (0844 871 7624) to 4 Sep; 'The Railway Children' (0871 297 0740) to 2 Jan 2011

Next Week:

Kate Bassett immerses herself in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival