Dido, Queen of Carthage, Globe, London<br></br>Cuckoos, Barbican Pit, London<br></br>Food Chain, Royal Court, London

Fun and games in Troy town
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The Independent Culture

Is this the Globe or an adventure playground? It's both in Tim Carroll's wonderfully fresh, albeit flawed staging of Dido, Queen of Carthage. Finding the Bard's reconstructed wooden "O" fitted out with a kids' climbing frame and a stainless steel slide may well stop you in your tracks. After all, Shakespeare's young rival, Christopher Marlowe, penned this tragicomic romance circa 1585, with Virgil as his original source. Nonetheless, the slide is how the gods playfully descend from on high in this modern-dress production.

The Olympians also stomp round like capricious brats, dressed up in giant adult garments. Having raised an angry storm over Aeneas's ship, Juno, sporting an Ascot-style hat and pigtails, lolls on a swing. Her rival, Venus, clomps off in outsized spangly sling-backs, determined to get the warrior-prince back on course. Fleeing from the ruins of Troy, Will Keen's small, tense Aeneas, though not indulging in any infantile acting, is armed with an orange plastic sword. And when he reaches Dido's kingdom, his son Ascanius is a ventriloquist's doll, controlled by James Garnon's Cupid.

Carroll's directorial concepts steer close to the wind. He can be a terrible purveyor of intrusive gimmicks, and you might accuse him of playing for laughs here. Maybe he fears the play will otherwise be "caviar to the general" (Hamlet's allusion to this very play, according to some scholars).

As Dido, Rakie Ayola never attains full tragic stature. British actors currently seem unable to play royals with a historically informed sense of august grace. Keen's Aeneas seems to shallow out as well, though he suggests suppressed trauma in his riveting, hushed account of Greek atrocities. As for those deities, if Carroll has jokily shrunk them because of the playwright's reputed godlessness, or because Dido was first performed by a boys' troupe, he should reconsider this playwright's imaginative powers (educationally steeped in classical mythology) and the innate regal dignity of children.

Still, cavils melt away as - more often than not - this proves an inspired, radical take on a rarely aired play. Among the toy props, blue plastic hoops are enchantingly transformed into huntsmen's quiver-straps, waist-encircling bonds of love, and into picture frames - including a witty "zoom-in" on Keen, swaying on the spot, out at sea. Dido and Aeneas's hesitant wooing scenes seem new-minted too. Ayola's suddenly shy queen struggles to be cool in her designer trainers, almost dancing on the hot coals of desire, whilst Keen - dumbstruck in jeans and sneakers - can't believe his luck.

The breathtaking lyrical brilliance of Marlowe's blank verse isn't always cherished, but it is uttered with simple clarity. Claire van Kampen's score (though cribbing shamelessly from Michael Nyman) is entrancing: it shimmers and circles like an eddying sea and suggests the harmonious music of the spheres. A rediscovered Renaissance gem, staged with a spirit of adventure.

Aeneas, of course, sailed off to found Rome, which is where playwright Giuseppe Manfridi resides today. In his family drama, Cuckoos, he mates the Greek legend of Oedipus Rex with a vision of modern, middle-class Italy that's tongue-in-cheek and then some. Delicate readers, avert your eyes now or pardon my Latin because this is what I can only describe as an arse farce.

In Peter Hall's production, Beatrice and Tito make quite an entrance. They crawl in, stark naked and on their knees, painfully stuck in the doggy position. They've called a doctor, Tobia, to extricate them. But when Tobia eventually arrives, not only is he flummoxed, he's also Tito's father. In fact, it's a case of Tito carrying on and on up the Khyber while more preposterous family connections are uncovered.

You have to admire Hall's cast for their sheer stamina. One hopes they are protected - with kneepads. Their thorough loss of dignity is coupled with some comic panache as well. Mark Rice-Oxley's Tito rolls his eyes heavenward, amusingly fed up with his endless orgasms, and David Yelland is on fine form playing Tobia as a supercilious consultant. Half-leering, half-insanely prim, he spanks his son keenly whenever he takes the Lord's name in vain.

Really though, this is a wearisomely puerile affair. Translated by Colin Teevan, it's stuffed with groan-inducing puns (not least "edifice wrecked") and has no narrative surprises up it sleeve (or anywhere else). Jessica Turner's Beatrice shouts all her lines, as if volume is everything. Manfridi's last-minute tragic conclusion is glued on superficially, and Hall's programme note - ranking Manfridi's "Theatre of the Extreme" with Gloucester's gouged eyes and Howard Brenton's Romans in Britain - exaggerates Cuckoos' potency. Perhaps it would be shocking in a devout Catholic country, since Beatrice is a lapsed nun. But with so much "risqué" sex on the English stage these days, this farce feels essentially old hat.

It's dog-eat-dog and watch out for that turning worm in Food Chain, Mick Mahoney's blackly comic portrait of low-lifers in Islington. Tony and Carol (Paul Ritter and Linda Robson) are a working-class couple with new money, thanks to rocketing property prices. Their son, Jamie, is a pushy, vain, teenage soap-star who bullies Billy, a quiet boy. The latter's separated parents, Nat and Emma (Justin Salinger and Claire Rushbrook), appear to be the underdogs, well-spoken but on the breadline. Or are they a cunningly superior breed?

This is pointedly savage sitcom about materialism and exploitation as well as bad parenting. With two predatory couples sitting around of an evening, discussing their Thai takeaway while snorting coke, and with a strange final slide into a mentally unstable fantasy, this is perhaps Mahoney's North London answer to Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. He also has a sharp ear for chat.

Anna Mackmin's strong cast can't conceal the rather jumbled and jolting plot developments. Gritty credibility is sometimes sacrificed for a gag too. The potentially teasing lesbian relationship - with Emma getting the maritally unhappy Carol dirty dancing - is curiously underdeveloped. But Rushbrook's dreamily vague air, masking scornfulness, is unsettling. Salinger is both gentle and menacing, while Ritter is appallingly funny - a scrawny human ferret, maniacally fidgeting while trying to swagger. I'd rank his Tony as the top comic performance of the year to date. And Mahoney, at his best, is a satirically damning, modern-day Hogarth.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'Dido, Queen of Carthage': Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1 (020 7401 9919), to 26 Sep; 'Cuckoos': Barbican Pit, London EC2 (0845 120 7550), to 12 July; 'Food Chain': Royal Court Upstairs, London SW1 (020 7565 5100), to 12 July

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