Happy, Pit, London<br></br>Voices, Riverside, London<br></br>Clubland, Royal Court Upstairs, London

Leave these puppets hanging on their string
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The Independent Culture

Ronnie Burkett was honoured with a special mention at the OBIE (off-Broadway) Awards a couple of years ago. That's no mean achievement for a Canadian alternative puppeteer and I wish I'd seen his citation-winning show, Tinka's New Dress, which dealt with fascism. I can only surmise it was a darned sight better than Happy, Burkett's excruciatingly saccharine new marionette play about feeling sad – currently at the Pit for the global BITE season.

Don't get me wrong. This slick production has great potential, telling the tragi-comic story of a bereaved young woman called Carla who can't be comforted by her aged neighbours. Happy purports to contemplate the nature of mourning, memories and resilience versus depression. Quirky surprises also pop up as Burkett transports us to the spirit world where a macabre cabaret show charts the normal progress of grief (through to acceptance), mocking Carla's inconsolable state.

Visually, Burkett's homunculi are arresting, too. Some are like Ron Mueck's wax sculptures with spookily realistic faces – right down to their tiny glistening tongues – while others are cartoons with big ears, bulbous noses and spindly legs. Imaginative games are played as well with the kitchen dresser that serves as the set, an open drawer doubling up as a grave or a bath tub.

But our puppet-master's handling of everything – sometime juggling three characters at once – falls short of virtuosity. Giving marionettes motor-mouthed speeches is ambitious but their gesticulations can't keep up. Moreover, Burkett is appallingly clumsy in his attempts to tug at our hearts. His dialogue drips with slush like, "If you want the rainbow you gotta put up with the rain." This is a soap on strings and the tagged-on, supposedly biting cabaret has no teeth.

In contrast at Riverside Studios, Voices is a ferocious and thought-provoking satire of power and corruption imported from Holland for LIFT. Someone has been having a party here for a dining table stands heaped with luxurious debris – decimated soufflés and sullied wine glasses. One gilded chair has been kicked over and stockings lewdly tossed among the silverware. It looks like a travesty of the Last Supper and it turns out you are having dinner with fiends.

A lone figure – the swarthy, instantly magnetic actor Jeroen Willems – stumbles in and takes a seat. Fiddling with his black-rimmed specs, he's an intellectual giving us his post-prandial chat (based on writings by Pier Paolo Pasolini and performed in English). "There are people who have believed in nothing since their birth," he suggests. He worries that the bourgeoisie merely pass from one "faith" to the next.

These anxieties drive the show but the intellectual's voice is pointedly stuttering. He's a weak, complicit figure and is soon transmogrifying into corporate fat cats, wheeler-dealers and other devils. His metamorphoses are riveting in their slipperiness. One moment he's a hunch-backed political magnate grossly spooning cream into his sneering mouth, the next a wired multinational gangster cackling like a hyena.

These grotesques are, furthermore, sneakily merged with more real figures as Willems slips in equivocating statements made by an ex-director of Shell International. Voices is a horribly funny and chilling gallery of vice-ridden figures for our times and the twist – which bears thinking about – is that Willems' tour de force is a power trip in its own right to which theatre-goers willingly succumb.

More struggles for supremacy are being fought in Clubland, Roy Williams' new play at the Royal Court. His combatants are old schoolmates and the battleground is the dance floor. Ade (hulking Deobia Oparei) is an African-born British bodybuilder, once a bullied misfit, who now gets his kicks from pulling tarty white trash and thinks nothing of cheating on his black girlfriend, Sandra (bolshy Natasha Gordon). Still, he's furious and scornful when she pairs up with Kenny (Rhashan Stone), a nervous romantic with West Indian roots. Kenny's white best mate, Ben (Marc Warren), is curiously riled about Sandra as well.

Williams has a sharp ear for chat and Clubland delves into complex racial and sexual tensions in multicultural modern Britain. However, the acting in Indhu Rubasingham's production is uneven. Warren's Ben is a dangerous cocktail of joshing bravura, aggression and insecurity. But other cast members seems to be auditioning for a sitcom, turning down the dramatic heat.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

Happy: Pit, EC2 (020 7638 8891) to 7 July; Voices: Riverside, W6 (020 8237 1111) to today; Clubland: Royal Court Upstairs, SW1 (020 7565 5000) to 7 July

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