Be Near Me, Palace, Kilmarnock<br>A Midsummer Night's Dream, Novello, London<br>Thriller Live, Lyric Shaftesbury, London

Ian McDiarmid is poignant as the conflicted priest in his own adaptation of a novel by Andrew O'Hagan
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The Independent Culture

What was that peculiar, recurrent din backstage? Maybe just the wind thrashing against the Palace Theatre's dock doors. It was mighty blustery in Kilmarnock for the start of the National Theatre of Scotland's UK tour of Be Near Me.

Co-produced by the Donmar, this is a dramatisation of Andrew O'Hagan's absorbing novel about an Oxford-educated priest going to the dogs. Assigned to an impoverished and xenophobic Ayrshire town, Father Anderton becomes infatuated with Mark, a reprobate schoolboy. Hanging out with the youth, he ends up accused of sexually assaulting a minor.

On stage the priest's character is less elusive, coming into swifter and sharper focus than in the novel – fleshed out by the actor Ian McDiarmid, who has also penned the script, deftly filleting the book. McDiarmid's wizened Anderton is highly effete, but with a lively wit. A child of the rebellious Sixties, he can't help laughing indulgently at adolescents behaving badly. This is a subtle depiction of the perilous fine line between liberal tolerance and moral spinelessness.

The production has its blips. McDiarmid can be mannered, yet his unspoken yearning is poignant when he watches Richard Madden's swaggering Mark. That rattling backstage might almost have been his spirit, long trapped in the closet, breaking free. Director John Tiffany's production is beautifully fluid, with melancholic Celtic airs weaving between scenes.

Director Gregory Doran's admired RSC production of A Midsummer Night's Dream must have lost something in its transition from Stratford to the West End. Now behind a proscenium arch, the set's mirrored walls look like some tacky fitted wardrobe. It seems odd, moreover, that Theseus's palace should be filled with quarrelling modern-dress citizens when the Duke and his betrothed, Hippolyta, have just been battling in Ancient Greek armour. Are the royal couple historical re-enactment fanatics? This Dream is, certainly, a bit of a hotchpotch.

But then dreams are just that, and some of Doran's star-free cast win you round once the action cuts to the woods. This production pinpoints the characters' flipsides, right down to their mood swings within single lines. Doran additionally emphasises the feistiness of the fair sex and, inversely, the vulnerability of men, with Peter de Jersey's jilted Oberon howling with grief after acting macho.

Unfortunately, de Jersey also waxes melodramatic, swirling his cloak like Vincent Price. Nonetheless, his and Titania's elfin throng are comical and creepy. Looking like juvenile delinquent goths, they brandish naked dolls with heads that madly fly off from their bodies, on elastic cords. The fairies also dog the eloping lovers with a cacophony of animal cries and – rifling though Hermia's suitcases, poltergeist-style – they wave her silk underwear like whispering leaves.

Joe Dixon as Bottom is a delight: a galumphing simpleton with the enthusiasm of a toddler. His metamorphosis – in jeans and a T-shirt with a fully realistic ass's head on top – is so matter of fact that it's truly dreamlike, even if his muffled voice would have been better amplified. The mechanicals' Pyramus and Thisbe, in turn, provides a farcical high, with Wall forced to use his crotch for the legendary chink. "My cherry lips have often kiss'd thy stones," cries Ryan Gage's camp Flute, with a wide-eyed grin.

Lastly, it's hard not to balk at Thriller Live. This is a tribute show which celebrates the pop star Michael Jackson, completely ignoring the tragic twists in his life story. What might have been an intriguing musical biodrama is, in fact, just a string of disco hits, belted out by a bunch of vocalists including Denise Pearson (formerly of the band Five Star) and interspersed with risibly dull statistics about Jackson's record sales.

A sweet child lookalike in 1970s gear sings Jackson's youthful No 1, "ABC", but thereafter, the show – conceived by Adrian Grant – averts its eyes. These are the elephants in the room: Jackson's trial, accused and acquitted of child molestation; that time he held his baby over a balcony; the cosmetic surgery that has turned his natural beauty into a ghoulish vizard. Frankly, the lack of irony beggars belief as the company launch into "Thriller", complete with Hammer Horror-style monster masks.

No, really, Jackson is a good guy – up there with JFK and Obama – suggests director Gary Lloyd, somewhat preposterously projecting a series of iconic stills of the singer and the said presidents as the cast work up to the finale, "It doesn't matter if you're black or white". Anyway, whatever you think of Jackson, the man, no one could deny the catchiness of his funky beats and Lloyd's chorus line manage to dance around the herd of elephants with fabulous élan: toes flicking then freezing, torsos rippling then spinning, and that trademark slipping, sliding moonwalk, as if they've buttered their soles.



'Be Near Me': Donmar, London WC2 (0870 060 6624) to 14 Mar and touring; 'A Midsummer Night's Dream': Novello, London WC2 (0844 482 5135) to 7 Feb; 'Thriller Live': Lyric, Shaftesbury Ave, London W1 (0844 412 4661) to 12 Apr

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