Ghosts, Duchess Theatre, London<br/>Measure for Measure, Almeida, London<br/>Off the Endz, Royal Court Downstairs, London

Ibsen's tale of festering family secrets lacks tension, whereas Shakespeare's take on political sleaze is full of it
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The Independent Culture

Everyone is going to blazes in Ibsen's doomy domestic tragedy Ghosts, which is now enjoying – if that's the right word – a major West End revival. This production not only stars Iain Glen but also marks his directorial debut, and there's the rub.

Glen's Pastor Manders is a puritanical traditionalist of the Victorian era. Hands clasped, he congratulates himself on how – when Lesley Sharp's Mrs Alving ran to him years ago – he sent her home dutifully to redeem her marriage. Now, as a mature widow, she is building an orphanage as a memorial to her husband, and the pastor is acting as her adviser, holding forth in a marbled drawing room on her country estate. However, the conservative ideals to which he clings are – along with the orphanage – about to go up in smoke, for purse-lipped Mrs Alving feels compelled to utter the sordid truth. Her spouse was a hellish libertine behind closed doors. Moreover, her beloved son, Oswald (Harry Treadaway), woefully proves to be a chip off the old block, infected with inherited syphilis.

Unfortunately, this staging of Ghosts inspires gloom only by being boring. The folly was to believe that Glen could both act and direct. Without deft pacing, Ibsen's exposé of festering secrets comes over as perfunctory. The dramatic tension is slack too, because half the hints that Ibsen dropped about forbidden desires aren't picked up. There's just one flicker of sexual chemistry between Sharp and Glen, quickly doused. Frank McGuinness's new translation doesn't help, lurching between obtrusively modern and stiffly archaic phrases.

The last Act fleetingly touches a nerve, when Oswald asks his agonised mother to assist his suicide if he's debilitated by a seizure. Nonetheless, in the lead-up to this, Treadaway has indulged in what looks like an endless audition for Rain Man, speaking flatly and rocking on his heels. Worse, at the tragic climax, Sharp strikes a ridiculous melodramatic pose, arms aloft in frozen horror, leaving everyone longing for the curtain to fall.

Another severe puritan – Angelo – is trying to suppress illicit desires in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare's tricky seriocomic portrait of a permissive society, crackdowns, and hypocritical politicians. Michael Attenborough's modern-dress production is a curate's egg. His red-light district barely needs policing for – apart from an opening burst of dirty dancing – its alleys are quiet as the grave.

More crucially, Ben Miles's portrayal of the morally dodgy duke, Vincentio – who abdicates responsibility from the beginning – never comes into sharp focus. His Vincentio starts out in a faintly sleazy suit, and the dirty dancing might be his dark fantasy, given that his office wall features a blow-up of Pietro da Cortona's painting "The Rape of the Sabine Women" (set design by Lez Brotherston). Only nothing in Miles's performance tallies with that. His Vincentio just seems mildly, laughably incompetent as he scuttles around disguised as a friar.

That said, Rory Kinnear is electrifying as Angelo, making one eager to see his imminent NT Hamlet. From a geeky, bespectacled civil servant – surely fresh out of university – he speedily turns into an irascible dictator, giving those begging for leniency short shrift.

Then suddenly he finds himself sexually infatuated, and the shock and turmoil in his soliloquies is so detailed that it's as if you're staring through a fibroscope into his contorted heart. Anna Maxwell Martin as Isabella – his nemesis from the nunnery – brings out all the perverse ironies of her unintentional "seduction" scenes. A dowdy prig, she might, if they weren't both so sexually screwed-up, have been his soul-mate, his intellectual match, enthralling him with her theological arguments, and with a whiff of school-mistressy dominatrix too, slamming his desk with her fist when really fired-up.

In Off the Endz at the Royal Court, David (Ashley Walters) is the unrepentant bad boy, swaggering out of prison and tempting his old mate Kojo (Daniel Francis) off the straight and narrow. Though still living on the council estate where they grew up, Kojo and his girlfriend Sharon (Lorraine Burroughs) have become hard-working professionals, determined to buy a dream home elsewhere.

However, redundancy and spiralling credit-card debts make David's alternative business plan – gung-ho drug dealing – seem an enticing quick fix. The set-up of this new play by fast-rising Bola Agbaje might sound grim. Yet Off the Endz is explosively funny and tense. Jeremy Herrin's cast are terrific, charting every tiny stress-fracture in the love triangle, while Walters, in particular, manages to make David's mouthy sexism hilariously shameless and scarily vicious by turns. Recommended.

'Ghosts' (0844 412 4659) to 15 May; 'Measure for Measure' (020-7359 4404) to 3 Apr; 'Off the Endz' (020-7565 5000) to 13 March

Next Week:

Kate Bassett peeps through the keyhole at Private Lives, with Kim Cattrall and Matthew Macfadyen as Noel Coward's old flames in a new West End production