God's Garden, Linbury Studio, London
Breathing Irregular, Gate, London

Don't tell the bride – there are oats to sow in paradise

Lush: that's the word for Madeira. The plant life, the landscape, the fado singing, even the local Portuguese dialect – all aspire to the luxuriant softness of its cosseting climate. The choreographer Arthur Pita has family there, and in God's Garden, a striking 75-minute touring piece of dance theatre and live music, transmits the distinctive colour of island life, including its darker shades.

In outline it's the prodigal son story, a tug-of-war twixt home – all be it a poor, peasant one – and the lure of elsewhere. In a sunny courtyard (design by Jean-Marc Puissant) three generations of one family eat, drink, squabble, even sleep, when the wine and late-night fado render them senseless.

The action begins with a wedding, or the prelude to one, as Valentina Golfieri's bride ricochets about the stage with excitement like a bouncing puffball. Then, halfway to the altar, a phone rings and the marriage is off. Cue a rueful fado number sung by the bride's mother – Nuno Silva in drag – reflecting on the cruelty of fate, while the bride's copious tears are used for watering the plants.

The musical talents of Silva, better known for his brawny dancing, are the linchpin of this drama. Convincing as a female, he also plays the runaway groom whose true sexuality is signalled in a sequence like speeded-up film. Running on the spot to club beats, shedding clothes till he's down to his telling pink underpants, he drinks, snorts and humps his way to oblivion.

The homecoming, of course, is all forgiveness. The pregnant sister and the ancient granny wash him tenderly in a tub; his blind father (Jose Figueira, a magnetic presence) fingers his son's face before giving vent to his joy; there is riotous celebration, ending in a family kissa-thon. Never mawkish, the piece is full of earthy surprises.

Even death is presented as being wholesomely at one with life, as the granny (frisky octogenarian Diana Payne-Myers) cheerfully submits to being measured for her own grave. The more terrifying prospect is the wrath of the jilted bride, who eventually gets her comeuppance in a most unexpected and grisly way, and celebrates – how else? – by dancing on a table. For its swooning but discreet live music (plaudits to singer-guitarist Phil King), its warmth and its genuine strangeness, this paradise lives up to its promise.

Multitasking is also at the heart of the latest dance-drama experiment from Carrie Cracknell, co-director of Notting Hill's famously tiny theatre, the Gate. Based on transcripts from 999 calls, Breathing Irregular attempts not just to relay the heart-stopping, sometimes grimly comic details of these life-or-death appeals (operator to caller whose neighbour has tangled with a chainsaw: "Have you got the arm?" "Erm ... yes, I mean no ... it's down the road"), but to suggest physically and verbally the way that time, for the panic-stricken, fragments and distorts. Served by four inspired performers, in this, it largely succeeds. Less happy, though, is the way it turns us all into voyeurs. Some personal crises do not bear imagining.

'God's Garden': Corn Exchange, Brighton (01273 709709) 15 & 16 Feb; 'Breathing Irregular': to 27 Feb (020-7229 0706)

Next Week:

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