Five Gold Rings, Almeida, London<br></br>A Chorus Line, Crucible, Sheffield<br></br>The Happiest Days of Your Life, Royal Exchange, Manchester

Meet Yoda's distant relatives
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The Independent Culture

Five Gold Rings promises to be a 24-carat alternative for anyone who can't abide the gaudy tat that engulfs most theatres at Christmas. Don't be misled by the titular allusion to carols - Joanna Laurens' second play is not a family show except in the darkest sense, this being a domestic tragedy which features ruined marriages, fathers and sons behaving disastrously, incestuous passions and felo de se.

Set in an unnamed and ultimately symbolic desert, two brothers and their wives arrive from the city to urge their aged, supposedly rich father, Henry, to leave his homestead. The well is running dry but Henry clings on, insisting their mother might come back, though she left when Daniel and Simon were kids. Besides this, Daniel has become impotent with his spouse Freya and desires Miranda who, in turn, craves a baby but is frustrated in that quest by her partner, Simon. The characters live in the modern world - they play Monopoly - but this is a verse play strewn with echoes of Lear and The Tempest, Biblical parables and Ancient Greek sagas.

Laurens' lyrical debut, The Three Birds, was much praised and artistic director Michael Attenborough has saved up Five Gold Rings since his days at the RSC. He has also assembled a terrific team, with Helen McCrory's Miranda running from Will Keen's Simon into the arms of Damian Lewis's Daniel. However, contain your excitement. Laurens' poetry is not all it's cracked up to be. It is sometimes rhythmically mesmerising, sometimes startling in its metaphors, but the writing is immature and uneven, indulging in embarrassingly laboured wordplay. Take Daniel's rebuke: "There's no point in you/ lying like a wishbone/ always lowering the looped horns of/ your youandus uterus at me". Ouch.

Presumably, Laurens' "house style" has a point. Full of grammatical quirks, this dysfunctional family's exchanges suggest they are primitively archetypal or infantile on some deep level. Consider, for example, Miranda lamenting, "I have the want for a child", or Daniel saying, "Fathermine, to tell you I have/ I have this Braeburn apple, stealed from your fruit bowl." Unfortunately, once you realise who this dynasty actually reminds you of - yes, they are clearly distant relatives of Yoda from Star Wars - it's hard not to snigger. Laurens is also more interested in experimenting linguistically than in carrying her audience along with a strong plot. Near the end, a revelatory twist reverberates back through the play, but having the action revolve round a dropped billet-doux and closet bankruptcy feels flimsy and melodramatic.

Attenborough has overvalued this script but you still come away impressed by Laurens' most inspired images, thanks to deft, quietly vigorous verse-speaking by his sterling cast. Only Lewis occasionally founders, attempting to bring out amusing colloquialisms. Actually, the most unexpected thrills of this staging are physical. McCrory and Lewis's illicit rendezvous is electrifyingly passionate, and Keen's suicidal final scene brilliantly welds naturalism and expressionism. As he slowly undresses, he seems to be a drowning man already, breathing in distressed bursts.

This show epitomises the state of British theatre this year, where in general the new writing hasn't been as exciting as the wealth of terrific thirtysomething actors coming to the fore.

I guess the 1970s American musical, A Chorus Line, is a much deserved tribute to all those performers who never quite make the big time. Originally conceived and directed by the Broadway choreographer Michael Bennett, this show plays games with art and life because what we watch is, supposedly, an extended audition for another older-style musical.

In this revival, over 20 chorus-line hopefuls are put through their paces by the director, Zach. He likes playing God and serves as a theatrical shrink, making them all open up and tell their life stories. The stripped-down look of A Chorus Line is in bold contrast to most lavish musicals. Stephen Brimson Lewis's set is a shadowy stage furnished with glimmering rehearsal mirrors. Meanwhile, the songs and book (by Marvin Hamlisch, Edward Kleban, James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante) celebrate the stamina of the stage-struck.

Frankly though, I found this a dull piece of work: slow-witted, starved of plot developments, and embarrassingly corny. Even with cross-fades and jump-cuts between characters' monologues, the string of sob stories seems endless. Ah well, if nothing else this is a great career break for Nikolai Foster, making his directorial debut after being nurtured as an assistant at the Crucible. Aided by choreographer Karen Bruce, he has paced and energised his ensemble with admirable assurance. Josefina Gabrielle's dance routine, as Zach's disappointed old-flame Cassie, is embarrassingly histrionic, but David Sellings' Mike is a charismatic show-stopper, leapfrogging over the heads of his rivals, and still having the puff to sing, "I Can Do That".

Finally, The Happiest Days of Your Life was not an evening of unparalleled joy and laughter. Though staged affably enough by Braham Murray, John Dighton's post-Second World War school farce hardly seems worth revisiting. Dighton's big joke can be seen coming a mile off - namely that Hilary Hall School For Boys has been accidentally paired with an evacuated establishment for young ladies - and the horror this causes amongst the staff is, obviously, sorely dated. Still, Joanna Riding is delightfully ludicrous as the sports mistress, Miss Gossage. Panting for Simon Robson's Mr Billings and beetling around with two hockey sticks protruding from her rucksack like antennae, she combines gauche bounciness and bug-eyed ardour with consummate comic timing.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'Five Gold Rings': Almeida, London N1 (020 7359 4404), to 17 Jan; 'A Chorus Line': Crucible, Sheffield (0114 249 6000), to 24 Jan; 'The Happiest Days of Your Life': Royal Exchange, Manchester (0161 833 9833), to 17 Jan

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