Home/The Apple Cart, Theatre Royal, Bath

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The Independent Culture

If nothing else, the Peter Hall Company summer season in Bath is refocusing the repertoire in regional theatre like no other current enterprise. And in offering first Rattigan and now David Storey and Bernard Shaw, it's certainly covering the waterfront.

Storey's Home (1970) launched the double act of John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson that went on to encompass Pinter's No Man's Land, but the performances of Stephen Moore and David Calder find their own level of tearful melancholy and vulnerability in old age.

Calder in particular is assailed from within by doubts and fears, sudden shafts of misgiving piercing his currant-bun features as Harry, while Moore's Jack has a haughty exterior grandeur that belies an inner desolation, with increasingly vague and desperate references to relatives who may not even exist.

Both men are presenting an image of themselves to the world that is part camouflage, part deception. And their shimmering politesse is undermined by the raucous, funny interventions of Nichola McAuliffe and Lesley Joseph as a pair of lower-class harridans, and by Matthew Wilson as a troubled younger refugee from "remedials".

There's nothing difficult or mysterious about the play in Stephen Unwin's meticulous, well-paced production. It's a study in senescent sadness as the sun sets on empire in an old people's home, possibly an asylum, where the Union Jack is untroubled by any wind around the flagpole and memories of a former life are hedged around with suspicions of bad behaviour, even sexual deviancy.

If the Storey is retold as a digestible exercise in sub-Beckettian moan and misery, Shaw's The Apple Cart proves an even bigger surprise here. West End revivals have marked down this 1929 political extravaganza, as Shaw called it, as an intransigent talk-fest with a notably unfunny "high comedy" interlude in the boudoir of the king's mistress.

But our increasingly anxious obsession with the relationship between a ruling monarchy and a risibly flawed system of democratically elected politicians rebounds on the play with an astonishing intensity, and there's a high strike rate of renewed satirical flourishes, such as the flustered outburst of James Laurenson's Ramsay MacDonald-style leader: "I'm prime minister for the same reason all prime ministers are prime ministers: I'm good for nothing else."

Hall's sound design quotes Elgar as the "overcrowded third-class carriage of the cabinet" – including Barry Stanton's "revolutionary" trade minister, Penny Bunton's butch powermistress general and Geoff Leesley's dour chancellor Pliny – assembles on red plush chairs, and the jaunty clog dance from La Fille Mal Gardée as Janie Dee's spirited Orinthia dances sexually voracious attendance on Charles Edwards's intellectually agile King Magnus.

It's a perfect expression of the play's purpose in goosing political sonority with chirpy argument.

To 1 August (01225 448844; www.theatreroyal.org.uk)