Brighton Rock, Almeida, London<br></br>Don Juan, Lyric Hammersmith, London<br></br>Don Carlos, Crucible, Sheffield<br></br>Primo, NT Cottesloe, London

The end of the pier show. I hope
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The Independent Culture

As Mephostophilis explained when he said to Dr Faustus in Wittenberg "Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it", everlasting torments are not a matter of location, but a state of mind. Well, the British seaside can seem inescapably infernal too. In Graham Greene's 1930's novel Brighton Rock, the south coast is ominously like the wilderness of perdition in Paradise Lost with its thunder claps and stretches of gloomy water. Greene, of course, invested his thriller about the criminal underworld with Christian imagery, the gang leader, Pinkie, being a scarred twisted Catholic with more than a hint of Lucifer.

Regrettably though, Brighton Rock, the musical - premiered by the Almeida's artistic director Michael Attenborough - is just diabolically dull. I know evil is notoriously banal, but this is ridiculous.

This show ought to be more inspired. The composer John Barry (best known for "Born Free") gained Greene's blessing for the project, and Attenborough's father Richard played Pinkie in the famous 1940's film version. But the best one can say is that Lez Brotherston's set is eye-catching: an eerie pier with high walkways against a cloudy sky. On the remaining strip of stage, choreographer Karen Bruce's chorus numbers look cramped, half-hearted and vaguely silly. Everyone can sing just fine, but the orchestra sounds as if it's engulfed in fog, and Barry's mix of jazz and passé pop-rock is remorselessly plodding.

Giles Havergal's script essentially sticks with the film version's ending, but he fills in Pinkie's back story more clearly. The snag is that lyricist Don Black's accompanying ditty, listing the formative damage, is almost risible. Michael Jibson's testy Pinkie has a disturbing, pallid, piggy face but is not deeply chilling. Sophia Ragavelas as Rose, his girlfriend, sings prettily, but only Harriet Thorpe's flame-haired Ida, the hearty tart-turned-crusading detective, has any spark.

Don Juan is heading for the bottomless pit too in Neil Bartlett's farewell production as artistic director at the Lyric Hammersmith. The action is updated to pre-Second World War, with Juan loitering in a gloomy grand hotel. Molière encourages us, en route, to have a laugh with the avid Lothario. But when it comes to the crunch, that anti-divine comedy is swallowed up in the morality-play conclusion where hell opens up and this wicked rover and probable atheist (whose only belief is said to be 2+2=4) pays for his sins.

The real disappointment is that James Wilby's Juan is never really sexy or much fun. A golden boy going to seed, he lounges around in dapper suits, but one looks in vain for any psychological complexity. He barely registers his manservant Sganarelle's jumpy warnings about Judgement Day. In fact, most of the cast are frightfully weak, with one delightful exception. Paul Ritter's scraggy Sganarelle is hilarious: an endearingly flailing, gabby geezer, forever twitching as if his conscience were a plague of fleas. Bartlett's translation is admirably pert and his directorial concept is fine - the hotel being a nightmarish mental hell from which the sexaholic can't escape. But his alternative non-believers' ending is merely anticlimactic as Juan crumples from a heart attack and is rolled by chambermaids through a trapdoor. It's a disappointing end to Bartlett's decade at the Lyric. But everyone will remember his electrifying Oliver Twist, his sharply perturbing Marivaux productions, and the vibrant buzz he generated by bringing in experimental companies like Frantic and Improbable.

Meanwhile, Don Carlos is Michael Grandage's last production as the director of the Crucible. He quits on a high, directing this tragedy by Schiller with terrific intensity and lucidity. In many ways this is the German Romantic's variation on Hamlet. In Schiller's vision of 16th-century Spain, Carlos is the heir apparent and hates King Philip II, while covertly adoring his new stepmother, Elizabeth. A war is also brewing in the Netherlands where the protestants are suffering Spanish persecution, and the Horatio character - Carlos' friend, Rodrigo - is a passionate advocate for Flemish independence and for humane tolerance. Carlos could become a great reformer, but the court is riddled with conspirators and the Grand Inquisitor has long tentacles.

Philip's palace, designed by Christopher Oram, is a vast silvery chamber, oppressively narrowing yet beautifully lit by Paule Constable. One cavil about the casting: Richard Coyle is a fine actor but is a fraction too old to play Carlos who behaves like the spirit of youth - depressed, besotted, raging at old-fashioned mores. Still, Claire Price, as Elizabeth, conveys natural goodness with vibrancy. Peter Eyre is a monstrous, mellifluous Inquisitor, seeming to float in his crimson robes like some poisonous Portuguese man-of-war.

Crucially, Derek Jacobi is on top form as Philip: ann elegant, steely, brutal authoritarian with a hidden, desperately lonely side and wry humour. What's also inspiring is how passionate this play is about political action. You can sense the French Revolution fast-approaching in Schiller's great speeches on freedom. Schiller also seems to predict the Third Reich's atrocities, as the Inquisitor icily observes, "Men - souls - are numbers, no more than that."

Primo Levi, an Italian secular Jew, was reduced to a number tattooed on his arm by the Nazis. Antony Sher's monologue, Primo, is a tightly edited adaptation of If this is a Man, Levi's autobiographical account of his years in Auschwitz where he survived systematic degradation, slave labour, constant hunger and scarlet fever. I am somewhat wary of the whole idea of dramatising the Holocaust, letting people dip their toes in its horrors via a simulation. However, it is equally vital not to forget, and Richard Wilson's staging intelligently avoids histrionics.

Sher stands, speaking directly to us, in a windowless concrete chamber. Very little is acted out. Mostly he simply lets Levi's words say it all. Also, he is not ragged and emaciated, but like the author in later life, robust and comfortably dressed. This is all the more poignant, for we see a civilised man before us and, in our mind's eye, the half-numbed, battered creature to which he was reduced. A couple of mood-enhancing music cues are obtrusively inserted, and Sher makes a few adjustments to the text, employing repetition to intensify one flash of righteous, undying rage. But, essentially, this is a superb, subtle, restrained performance shot through with wisdom, barbed irony and amazingly resilient humanity.

'Brighton Rock': Almeida, London N1 (020 7359 4404), to 13 Nov; 'Don Juan': Lyric, London W6 (08700 500511), to 30 Oct; 'Don Carlos': Crucible, Sheffield (0114 249 6000), to 6 Nov; 'Primo': NT Cottesloe, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), to 1 Dec

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

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