The message on my voice mail said I mustn't forget to dress up. If you buy into The Class Club - the latest alternative Christmas show by the Olivier-winning cabaret troupe, Duckie - you are duty-bound to attire yourself according to your place in the class system. If you decide you're upper crust (by birth or, more cavalierly, just for the night), you have to don your most pukka evening gear. In return, you will be led through Duckie's maze of velvet curtains to a candelabra-lit banquet of canapés, champagne and - I am told - delicious rare game. If you weren't born with a silver spoon in your mouth, one will surely be supplied for the bespoke puddings. Old-fashioned butlers and maids also provide the entertainment, with a surreal penchant for operatic chorusing. If you plump for the middle-class option, you wear your socially woolliest outfit and sit in a mock-gastro pub, with waitresses who keep launching into contemporary dance routines.
Given that Duckie's shows are meant to be culturally subversive and since theatre critics are condemned in some quarters for being narrowly middle-class, I decided to slum it (inevitably in a middle-class manner), going for the so-called chav carvery. This is hosted by a brassy, unreconstructed pub landlady, a splendidly surly busboy who raps, and a fat whiskery chef. He doles out a canteen turkey roast then dresses up as Santa, in case you want to sit on his knee for a couple of extra quid.
Well, the grub was pretty good, washed down with cans of lager. But how much fun did I really have? Precious little, even when the curtains parted, the class triptych was revealed and everyone's entertainments superficially fused. The operatics are vocally full-throttle but half-baked in comedic terms, with hammy posturing on dessert trolleys. The unimpressive contemporary dance falls flat as satire.
Compared with the middle-class lot who looked desperately glum, some of the hoi polloi appeared to be having a riotous laugh, jeering at the highfaluting lot and lobbing their party-poppers. Yet that rang slightly false, I thought. Were they Joe Public or were some, in fact, pals of the cast acting up? Does anyone think the current trend for burlesque is truly hilarious or are they faking, caught up in some loop of post-modern irony?
The most interesting aspect of The Class Club is its hazy borderline between reality and theatre, extending beyond the show itself. Semi-dressing up as a "chav" was, I confess, mildly amusing but also more uncomfortable than I had foreseen, and I don't just mean tottering to the Pit in stilettos and a bleedin' freezing Lycra cami. Before dinner, a half-jokey foyer conversation with fellow-critics about our somewhat complicated social roots very nearly turned chippy. And, during dinner, though the bloke from Barbados sitting opposite me was jovial, no one else around us was making any effort to be matey - possibly all ill at ease with the mix of authentic salt-of-the-earth and pretenders. In the circumstances, Duckie's final collective ditty, "It doesn't matter what class you are, as long as you have class!" sounded more like simplistic (or ironic?) wishful thinking than the whole truth.
A Family Affair is, in turn, a celebrated Russian class satire, rarely seen in Britain. Alexander Ostrovksy's 1849, blackly comic equivalent of The Voysey Inheritance became a scandalous hit in Moscow's literary salons as soon as the censor banned its stage performance, pronouncing all its characters to be filthy-mouthed, first-rate villains and the whole thing a great insult to the merchant class. Samson Bolshov is an uncouth fat cat who, in a legal scam, declares himself bankrupt. His materialistic daughter, Olimpiada, then ditches her uppity plans to wed an aristo and lets family values go hang, getting hitched instead to the firm's low-born, fast-rising clerk who isn't the grateful sucker that papa envisages.
Nick Dear's translation, though obtrusively modern, brings out Ostrovsky's persistent topicality. Serdar Bilis's production, in crinolines and frock coats, has a potentially fine cast including Jonathan Coyne as the bullish Samson and Jane Bertish as a profiteering matchmaker with smug, cold, sly eyes. Regrettably, the director's slow pace and blind spots ruin much of the comedy. Yet this is a curious gem, worth reviving, with startlingly nasty and Pirandellian twists at the close.
Alas, writer-director Mick Gordon's latest play of ideas proves theoretically interesting but theatrically creaky. Co-scripted by the academic philosopher AC Grayling, On Religion explores dogged rationalism versus resurfacing religious and superstitious beliefs, in the form of a family rift between a strident academic scientist, played by Gemma Jones, and her born-again son (Elliot Levey). Jones is ultimately poignant and Gordon and Grayling play neat games with time, but more often they veer between lectures and sentimental goo.
I had miles more fun, along with my four-year-old nephew, at That Pesky Rat, Soho's puppet show adapted from Lauren Child's popular illustrated kids' book. The said rodent rumples around in his dustbin, idealising and dreaming of having a luxury pad and a lifestyle like his pals, the blow-dried boudoir chinchilla, Pierre, and the cat, Oscar, who kicks around all day in a City gent's penthouse. In the end, Pesky Rat finds a myopic but devoted owner who thinks he's a simply adorable cat. The cabaret-style ditties - by Kenny Mellman of Kiki and Herb - are wittier than Duckie's and the ultimate message is a remarkably wise, unromantic one about the everyday realities, compromises and mild delusions that love entails.
'Duckie: The Class Club' (0845 120 7550) to 7 January; 'A Family Affair' (020 7503 1646) to 13 January; 'On Religion' and 'That Pesky Rat' (0870 429 6883) to 6 and 7 January respectivelyReuse content