This is Theatreland after some kind of apocalypse. The Albery's stage curtain may be red velvet in the grand old style, but it's also filthy and torn. And behind it lies the bleakest room imaginable, where four decrepit persons play out Samuel Beckett's Endgame - going round in circles, wanting to leave, dying very slowly. The room suggests some poky hovel: just soot-grey walls and two small windows. Simultaneously, this is a vast, almost Dante-esque chamber of despair. The walls go on for ever, extending into the shadowy void above.
Now, one may not have pictured Lee Evans popping up in this vision of gloom, and his presence might sound like a lamentable case of mere celebrity casting. But Matthew Warchus's West End production is outstanding and astutely judged, with Evans as the hobbling servant Clov, circling around Michael Gambon's blind, wheelchair-bound Hamm.
Beckett and Evans are not, after all, such an odd coupling. The playwright's tragicomedies are strewn with the shards of vaudevillian routines, and Evans is an extraordinarily talented clown from the old mould. What he proves here, in an unstarry performance, is that he can sharply alternate between agonies and great gags. One moment his mouth gapes wide in a Munch-like, silent scream, the next he's gabbing away again as if nothing has happened. And this being Beckett, of course, nothing has.
Twitching and staggering in thermal leggings, Evans looks like a ragged simpleton; shaking his fists in flurries of rage at Hamm's demands, at his own folly and at life, he is poignant and ludicrous.
Meanwhile, Gambon is fantastically grotesque, with dark glasses, drooping red cheeks, and a wet tongue turning words over in a dark mouth. His Irish accent (unlike Evans's) comes and goes, but this appears to be deliberate and rather intriguing as Hamm tries to hold himself together by fitfully posturing as a grandiose storyteller and Lear-like tragedian. Gambon could, perhaps, convey more cruelty as the overlord, yet playing things down is surely true to this anti-dramatic piece.
Though Nell and Nagg, the old folks in the dustbins, aren't so interesting, this 1950s classic is remarkably fresh, with humour and humanity emerging strongly amid all the depressed cynicism. The existential significance of the piece comes over without straining. At the same time, with programme notes about Beckett's marriage, his paralysing grief at his father's death and his mother's "savage loving", the personal aspects seep through too. In Clov and Hamm, you can see a frustrated wife and writer-husband, a mother and baby, and a son yearning to be free of his sire.
Unfortunately, placed alongside this, Ladybird by Russia's Vassily Sigarev (translated by Sasha Dugdale), looks immature and roughly crafted. This writer definitely has his own contemporary living hell. He depicts teenagers going to the dogs in crumbling towns miles from Moscow and, at first, Ramin Gray's new production is grimly in-your-face. The narrow passage leading into the theatre has been turned into a corridor in a decaying tower block. On stage, a junkie sprawls in a grungy flat, eating ants that crawl in from the graveyard below. His mate Dima (Daniel Mays) is busy taking the plaques off stolen tombstones when Yulka (Anna Madeley), a seductive college student, turns up. Like despair personified, she tempts Dima to jump to his death. Such lurches into the allegorical can feel exciting, but the dialogue is messily repetitive and there are excruciatingly sentimental patches.
When the Night Begins should, in theory, be the hit play Hampstead sorely needs. This new two-hander about a stepdaughter who returns to haunt her abuser is by Hanif Kureishi and stars Catherine (Braveheart) McCormack and Michael Pennington. However, Anthony Clark's production is merely not bad. Considerable suspense is generated in this psychological thriller in which McCormack's Jane is a rich young widow revisiting her rough, lower-class roots. She is determined to purge painful memories of her past by inflicting grievous retributive violence on her step-dad, Cecil (Pennington). However, he claims he helped her out of the poverty trap by encouraging her artistic interests.
McCormack certainly exudes dangerous intensity, furious and quivering with fear. Physically, Pennington convincingly transforms himself into a down-at-heel, ailing old geezer, leaning forward slightly at the hip. What is intriguing about him is the slow erosion of his affable manner. You can never be sure quite how sexual their relationship was, how blasé Cecil is, or to what degree he is slyly manipulative.
So, this play explores dysfunctional families, subjective personal histories, and creativity versus retaliatory justice. Jane and Cecil are also playing their own kind of endgame. But this is neither the first nor the best stage play to deal with repressed memories and alleged incest - Anna Weiss (about a father-daughter showdown in which McCormack played the shrink), was far less creaky. Kureishi's dialogue often rings false, and some of the plot developments test one's suspended disbelief. All in all, When the Night Begins could not be described as the light at the end of the tunnel for Hampstead.
'Endgame': Albery, London WC2 (020 7369 1730), to 1 May; 'Ladybird': Royal Court Upstairs, London SW1 (020 7565 5000), to 27 March; 'When the Night Begins': Hampstead, London NW3 (020 7722 9301), to 3 AprilReuse content