Over the last couple of years as artistic director of Northampton's Royal, Rupert Goold has brought an extraordinary buzz to this small Victorian playhouse, staging bold adaptations of classics including Paradise Lost and Marlowe's Faustus, which he fused with a biodrama about Brit Art's iconoclastic Chapman Brothers. Now the theatre is closing down - for 14 months of refurbishment - so Hamlet is his climactic "au revoir". At this point, I feel bound to stop and say, "Do not read on". Or rather, please do but, if you are thinking of seeing this show and want the thrill of a total surprise, then leap the next paragraph.
Alarmingly, the whole production appears to be disintegrating on the night I attend, before the curtain has even risen. An apologetic stage manager, thrust into the spotlight, tries his best to ad lib about the history of the building while we all wait for two cast members who are stuck in traffic. I am just beginning to think this is, ironically, delaying the action like Shakespeare's own tragic hero, when suddenly the stage manager freezes. Looking aghast, he stares into the darkened stalls and finally calls out, "Who's there?" - the opening line on the battlements where Old Hamlet's unquiet spirit walks. The whole place is immediately plunged into blackout and you hear - as if from a crackling old wireless - Claudius' politic speech, "Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death/ The memory be green... ", overlaid with eerie, melancholy piano-playing. As your eyes adjust - in a fantastic coup de théâtre - you wonder if you are gazing into some kind of spooky mirror. Before you (courtesy of designer Laura Hopkins) floats a full-scale simulacrum of the Royal's ornate tiered circles, only more derelict and subtly invoking Dante's rings of hell.
Shadowy figures are leaning over the balconies, applauding as a late-night party kicks into life. The newlyweds, Jane Birkin's skeletally elegant Gertrude and Hilton McRae's Claudius, looking like a haggard fallen angel, are performing a sultry jazz number. He is tinkling the ivories of an ebony grand, on which she is recumbent, arching provocatively and crooning what will later be Ophelia's grief-maddened song - "Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's Day". Gertrude is also being watched by Tobies Menzies' scruffy, silently fuming Hamlet.
Many of Goold's concepts and textual edits are very clever. It is a brilliant stroke making Old Hamlet a theatre ghost, with his son embroiled in "the actions that a man might play". The younger generation's ruined hopes of love also come poignantly to the fore as we keep seeing Poppy Miller's tender Ophelia repeatedly going to comfort Menzies but being denied the chance, as each youngster is dragged away by their bossy elders.
It must be said, this production does go off the boil. Menzies is intelligent and intense. He also explores Hamlet's sexual confusion, madly wearing Gertrude's sheath wedding-dress like a shroud. But he has no feel for the whirling comedy of the role. Birkin's performance is also hit-and-miss. She is a very credible socially distracted mother, with a glazed smile, but at points her feeble speaking voice and vague manner suggest, problematically, that it's the actress, not the character, who is floundering. Still, this production is worth catching and full of startling ideas.
No visible ghosts stalk round the Scottish coastal town where Sharman Macdonald's new play, The Girl With Red Hair, is set. However, memories of dead loved ones are clinging on like limpets. The sun is shining on a clutch of houses and a rocky beach - similar terrain to Macdonald's The Winter Guest - but a cemetery also fills one corner of Mike Bradwell's production (co-presented by his own theatre, the Bush, but apparently needing a larger stage).
We gather a local teenager called Rosyln died a year ago. Now a passing stranger is trying to chat up her unsmiling mother in a café. Rosyln's former boyfriend, Matt, is loitering by the sea. His new girlfriend is struggling to compete and a younger lass, Izzy, is oddly fixated, pretending she is Roslyn. Meantime, a couple of elderly ladies, Sandra Voe's Sadie and Sheila Reid's widowed Ina, are nattering and bickering over fish and chips and Sadie's desire to start a new life.
The best one can say is that Macdonald's writing exudes warmth, humour and hope as her characters decide to move on from mourning. Voe and Reid are certainly amusing old troopers. Nonetheless, Robin Don's set is lumpen, disregarding the script's more delicate staging suggestions. This piece is also so static - with everyone sitting around like so much jetsam - that you might wish Bradwell had given it no stage space at all, passing it on instead to a radio producer. Another lamentable flop in Hampstead's uneven programming.
More exciting is a double bill of little-known short plays by Peter Gill, staged by the actor Daniel Evans as his directorial debut (in the Young Vic/Theatre 503 Direct Action season). On its own, Lovely Evening might seem slight, but it is deliberately a fragment, capturing flashes of memory from a boy's adolescence in 1950's Cardiff. Benjamin Davies' Laurence, with a twinkle in his eye, alternates between narrating and acting out moments from the summery night when his prim girlfriend, Nia Roberts' Marion, agrees to let her hair down. As a study of a relationship that may or may not last, this ties in interestingly with In The Blue - not to mention Gill's better known plays, Cardiff East and The York Realist. At the same time, In the Blue is more electrifyingly fractured and fast-moving, playing games with time and fantasies as Toby Dantzic's Michael replays his fraught love affair with Paul Rattray's Stewart in 1980s London. Evans' ensemble is impressive, polished and well-paced. He has also learnt much from Gill's own uncluttered style of directing, with Christopher Oram supplying scarlet and black backdrops and a couple of chairs. Let's hope Evans carries on in this vein, and maybe we will also be treated, one of these days, to a major London season of Gill's work.
'Hamlet': Royal, Northampton (01604 624 811), to 3 April; 'The Girl With Red Hair': Hampstead, London NW3 (020 7722 9301), to 16 April; 'Lovely Evening' & 'In The Blue': Theatre 503, London SW11 (020 7978 7040), to 3 AprilReuse content