Fragments, Young Vic, London

Making soufflés with substance
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The Independent Culture

Beckett's plays don't lend themselves to being described in culinary metaphors. You'd scarcely call Waiting for Godot a "feast" of drama or Happy Days a "banquet", indisputable masterpieces though they both are. "Soufflés with substance" is how a programme note portrays the five short pieces in Fragments, a production by Beckett's friend and fellow-expatriate in Paris, the great director Peter Brook.

Nutritious is what they certainly are, though they wouldn't have me reaching for the cook book in an effort to evoke them. Music is what comes to mind as you sit entranced by the skill of the pacing, the charm of the order in which they are presented, and the quite extraordinarily beautiful shifts of lighting that carry you from one piece to another like some deep controlling intelligence. You experience the show as a strange, haunting, humorous chamber symphony in which three of the movements are scherzos.

It took the press night audience, who should have been taken out of the fridge a little earlier, quite a while to let themselves go and they responded with hushed reverence rather than with the faintly rattled hilarity the first piece, Rough for Theatre 1, deserves.

The crippled vagrant, punting around in a wheelchair, and the blind beggar with whom he wants to pool disabilities are like oddball cousins of Hamm and Clov in Endgame, though there's WB Yeats and Synge in the mixture. "If you ask me we were made for one another," declares the vagrant, but of course there's an inevitable undercurrent of violence in the relationship that erupts in the cliff-hanger ending.

Assuredly made for one another are the two performers, Marcello Magni and Jos Houben – the short and the long it, so to speak. Houben is a comic genius. He's Popeye as Breughel might have drawn him, with the result stretched upwards in a funhouse mirror. Like Tommy Cooper, he only has to walk on stage and he's funny. And there's the same sense of essential good nature. He possesses a face that looks ridiculously keen to take anything that life wants to throw at it, even a custard pie.

That attribute stands him in good stead in the slapstick sketch Act Without Words II, in which he plays a figure whose deranged cheerfulness is contrasted with the stubborn gloom of Magni's character. They are alternately prodded out of their plastic homes by a long white goad. The text stipulates that this object should be horizontal. Brook makes it dangle vertically with hilarious and disturbing results. It kept reminding me of how Rod Hull's Emu used to look just before it went in for the pounce. Now there's a thought: Emu as God.

Kathryn Hunter is piercingly good in Rockaby, the greatest of the pieces. Again, Brook deviates from the stage directions to positive effect. In the text, the woman is rocked in her dead mother's chair and listens to the sound of her own voice as she gradually, with rhythmic repetitions, builds up to a suicide. Here Hunter sits her still in an ordinary chair and delivers the lines live.

Tiny, intense, glittery-eyed, she brings out the dark wit in the lines. The woman talks of herself in the third person "herself – whom else" and gives a different colour of ruefulness to every repletion of that grim joke. It made me think of the line in King Lear – "I should ev'* die with pity to see another thus". Hunter lets you see a woman in whom self-pity is turning to empathy.

The prose poem, Neither, which views life as an inexpressible suspension between two types of non-existence and a sketch where the three actors play a trio of old ladies who pair off to gossip about the third make up the rest of the bill. A wonderful evening.

To 6 October (020-7922 2922)

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