Jitney, RNT Lyttelton, London; <br></br>Over the Moon, London; <br></br>Antartica, Savoy, London; <br></br>The Danny Crowe Show, Bush, London; <br></br>Ghostdancing, Lyric Hammersmith, London

Minicab drama averts a baleful howl of despair
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The Independent Culture

Talk about the best and the worst of times. This week's review could have degenerated into a sustained howl had not Jitney turned up at the National and – just as I was balefully filling my lungs – proved to be one of 2001's theatrical high points. August Wilson's early play, performed by a superb visiting US ensemble under director Marion McClinton, is a funny, heart-rending and morally knotty portrait of black guys scraping a living in a Pittsburgh mini-cab (or "jitney") firm in the 1970s. The drivers' office is down a hellish alley of boarded-up outlets, with sooty factory chimneys looming against a red sky. Personal dilapidation is evident too. Anthony Chisholm's dollar-cadging Fielding is fuelled by whisky, wobbling between the threadbare sofa and ringing phone. Stephen McKinley Henderson's deceptively cuddly Turnbo is a malignant meddler and Russell Andrews' bridling Youngblood is accused of cheating on his girl. If the authorities don't demolish the street, these men might destroy themselves.

Yet Roger Robinson's grizzled, dignified Becker – the boss – believes in Christian virtues and, even during bust-ups, someone always keeps working. Meanness is countered by peace-making, generous acts and by pulling together (albeit not as impeccably as the cast).

Wilson has said his plays – including Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and the Pulitzer-winner, Fences – focus on African-American issues in specific decades. Truly though, what's great about this piece is the timelessness of its themes – poverty, generational conflicts, condemnation and reconciliation. Also Jitney manages to be solidly plotted yet incorporate the vibrant, gritty mess of real life with wonderful rambling chat and shattering explosions of grief.

Nearby at the Old Vic, Joan Collins is surely angling for this year's booby prize playing a hammy diva in Over the Moon. I hoped to weep with laughter. After all, this is a Broadway farce – set in the 1950s – by Ken (Crazy For You) Ludwig and directed by our veteran of the genre, Ray Cooney. Collins and Frank Langella play Charlotte and George Benson, ageing stars reduced to repertory touring, still hankering for Hollywood. Chaos mounts as the understudy has got pregnant, courtesy of George. Then he's leglessly drunk when movie director Frank Capra calls to announce he's attending the matinee. The fiancé of the Bensons' daughter ends up trussed in the costume cupboard while, on stage, George lurches around in Noël Coward's Private Lives sporting Cyrano de Bergerac's huge conk.

This is a lamentably poor cousin of Frayn's Noises Off and it's not just that Ludwig's script is feeble. The whole show is a sorry joke. Choreographing slack chase scenes, Cooney is a multiple-door bore and Collins – looking alarmingly like Michael Jackson in a corset – can't even play a frightful actress. She's too busy being one, embarrassingly hogging the limelight. Langella's George is droll when he reels about but he keeps lapsing into unconsciousness – and who can blame him?

At the Savoy, Edwardian Captain Campbell struggles more seriously to quell panic and anarchy among his officers and surly men in Antarctica, written by David Young. Separated from Scott's polar team and stuck in an ice cave for months with dwindling supplies, Campbell surely can't keep the chaps in line for ever with old-school codes of conduct. A new play in the commercial West End is a brave project and Richard Rose's cast – including Mark Bazeley, Stephen Boxer and Ronan Vibert – turn in impressive, intense performances. But Young's overwritten dialogue is stiff with ink and Campbell's crisis just melts vaguely away.

It's dog eat dog at the Bush in The Danny Crowe Show, David Farr's new satire about confessional chat shows. Clare Holman and Tom Goodman-Hill play callous TV researchers who trawl Britain for squalid families, making caring noises. They are, in turn, fooled by celebrity-craving youths who pretend they're parricidal devil-worshippers. The pity is Farr fails to mock these contemporary monsters, churning out little more than a sitcom. You might as well watch telly.

Finally at Hammersmith's Lyric Studio, the drone of the air-conditioning is more dramatic than Ghostdancing, Tamasha theatre company's muted, dull translation of Zola's Therese Raquin to a traditional Indian household. Rarely have rebellious adultery, murder, guilt and suicide been so acutely boring. Steer clear.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'Jitney': RNT Lyttelton, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), to 21 November; 'Over The Moon': Old Vic, London SE1 (020 7928 7616), booking to 12 January; 'Antarctica': Savoy, London WC2 (020 7836 8888), booking to 8 December; 'The Danny Crowe Show': Bush, London W12 (020 7610 4224), to 10 November; 'Ghostdancing': Lyric Studio, London W6 (020 8741 2311), to 3 November then touring

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