<preform>Days of Wine and Roses, Donmar Warehouse, London</br>The Big Life, Theatre Royal Stratford East, London</br>The Odyssey, Old Vic, Bristol</preform>

Drunk, disorderly, down in the dumps
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The Independent Culture

The merrily bibulous should beware. Days of Wine and Roses must sound like heaven to anyone who loves a tipple. However, as film buffs will recall, in the 1962 movie scripted by J P Miller, liquor sends Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick's marriage spiralling downwards till they are desperately circling the drain on Skid Row. In spite of some whisky-fuelled giggles en route, this is a grim moral tale with even Alcoholics Anonymous unable to offer definite salvation at the close.

The merrily bibulous should beware. Days of Wine and Roses must sound like heaven to anyone who loves a tipple. However, as film buffs will recall, in the 1962 movie scripted by J P Miller, liquor sends Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick's marriage spiralling downwards till they are desperately circling the drain on Skid Row. In spite of some whisky-fuelled giggles en route, this is a grim moral tale with even Alcoholics Anonymous unable to offer definite salvation at the close.

Unfortunately, Owen McCafferty's new stage adaptation, directed by Peter Gill, is depressing for another reason. It is not just less searing and convincingly inebriated than the original. At points, it is so dull one starts longing for a hip flask oneself.

In theory, McCafferty seems the right man for the job. His National Theatre play, Closing Time, was a beautifully orchestrated, drink-sodden pub drama. Also, he has changed Miller's US couple to young Irish ex-pats in 1960s London: Donal and Mona, played by Peter McDonald and Anne-Marie Duff (see This Cultural Life, page 54). However, in practice, McCafferty hardly improves on the original dialogue, making Donal into a bookie with long speeches about horseracing - McDonald may rattle these off like a sports commentator, but they are still boring.

That said, Duff is magnetic. The sexual teasing between them is charmingly natural, and she is complex from the start, with innocent sweetness and flashes of wildness.

Gill's staging certainly has its strengths, with all the domestic debris of the coming years - sofas and bottles, coats and packing crates - stacked behind Donal and Mona from the outset. That creates a sense of both inevitability and transience. Yet the bustle of London is barely realised, and why does McCafferty nudge the action forward to cover 1962-70 if he's not going to explore the Swinging Sixties? Alcoholism is, of course, a perennial tragedy but, in that case, why not fully update the story to today?

What a joy to move on to The Big Life, an irrepressibly funny ska musical about Caribbean immigrants arriving in England in the 1950s.

This has sprung from workshops at Theatre Royal Stratford East and is loosely based on Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. Four guys arrive on the boat and shack up in the same London boarding house, swearing to do without wine and women while they struggle to climb the social ladder. Their hopes are shaken as they encounter racism. On the amusing side, the B&B is also home to a handful of spirited ladies who prove impossible to resist.

OK, the plot is a tad scrappy and strained, there are one or two overblown caricatures, and a couple of scenes lapse into slush. Yet the homegrown feel of this show is a wonderful part of its vibrancy. Clint Dyer's cast dance jubilantly, like real people partying. What a relief from all those West End chorus lines with plastic smiles. There are also hilarious interruptions from Mrs Aphrodite (Tameka Empson), a superficially respectable, frisky old biddy who garrulously comments on the show from the royal box. She is funnier than anything in Little Britain.

Composer Paul Joseph's songs - with lyrics by Paul Sirett - are also storming. The score is something like the Blues Brothers and Madness mixed with Bob Marley, full-on swinging jazz and blues. The duet "Whatever Happened" - performed by Neil Reidman and the showstopping singer Yaa - is electrifyingly mournful, like a ghostly sigh. The opening hymn to England - sung like a cappella church choiring and surging with naïve hope - is also extraordinarily moving. This show doesn't need to accentuate its relevance to Britain's current arguments about immigrants. While everyone is having a blast, there's a bass line here that is seriously thought-provoking.

Immigration was, in fact, the running theme of the week. In adaptor-director David Farr's retelling of Homer's Odyssey - co-produced by Bristol Old Vic and Leeds' West Yorkshire Playhouse - Odysseus looks like a contemporary commander, in beret and jack boots.

We find him, shipwrecked on his voyage back from Troy, being slammed in a detention centre. He has to tell two interrogators all about his adventures with Circe et al in order to get released. This modernisation, as with Farr's recent Julius Caesar, does not fit very well, especially as Odysseus is not seeking asylum.

Farr's cast are also hit and miss. Robert Bowman makes a bland, stolid Odysseus, only suffering a crisis of conscience when some Trojan detainees unwittingly befriend him and stage a traumatised puppet-show about his razing of their city. Still, Agni Tsangaridou shines out as a dignified Penelope, and Farr's deliberately rough, resourceful aesthetic can be exciting. Designer Angela Davis has created a flotsam-strewn isle right across the Old Vic stalls and playfully creates the one-eyed Cyclops with an unblinking industrial lamp swinging around on a giant pole. The ensemble themselves are no angelic singers, but the superb composer Stu Barker weaves in haunting ethnic songs, accompanied by the dulcimer and Uillean pipes. Like Poseidon's stormy seas, this has its peaks and troughs.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'Days of Wine and Roses': Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (0870 060 6624), to 2 April; 'The Big Life': Theatre Royal Stratford East, London E15 (020 8534 0310), to 12 March; 'The Odyssey': Old Vic, Bristol (0117 987 7877), to 12 March, and touring

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