Lisa's Sex Strike, Octagon, Bolton<br/> Cider with Rosie, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme

No sex please, we're pacifists
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The Independent Culture

Blake Morrison's Lisa's Sex Strike is a bang up-to-date version of Aristophanes's comedy Lysistrata. In a co-production between the feisty Northern Broadsides company and Bolton's adventurous Octagon Theatre, Morrison works an excess of contemporary issues into the themes of race, war, religion and sexual morality explored in the original.

The Acropolis, the place occupied by women in 411BC, becomes a factory in a small northern mill-town. It's the hub where the men unwittingly produce industrial components with which their employer, the unscrupulous Prutt, is covertly contributing to the dirty business of arms trading. Racial tensions in the workplace spill over. Against a cluttered backdrop of topical references to suicide bombers, hoodies, gun culture, Eastern European immigrants, wars and dictators through the ages, the clashes are clearly more than cultural.

The women, of various ethnic origins, led by the iron-willed, scarlet-clad Lisa (Becky Hindley), with a ditsy Sally Carman as Carol, form a colourful brigade, swearing allegiance on a copy of Heat. There are deft instrumental contributions and rousing choruses, combining a folksy northern slant, a tongue-twisting rap, a touch of vaudeville, a velvety croon and a gospel chorus. One of the most effective scenes is a coolly cheeky take on Chicago.

A 14-strong cast produce uniformly energetic performances in Conrad Nelson's busily inventive production, and the show doesn't duck Aristophanes' blatant sexual imagery or coarse dialogue. The second half of the play, in which the men sport gigantic, knitted red phalluses, complete with woolly pom-poms, includes a priceless chorus of Muppet-like penises mouthing "The Song of the Pricks". Morrison and Nelson (composer as well as director) make an exhilarating case for this sharp-edged updating of a sexual boycott. But many of the scenes are too long, and material which begins wittily wears thin. A lesson on veils becomes a lecture on social customs, and the chorus of British bobbies plods. By plumping for the last and longest of at least three possible endings, Morrison has to tie up too many loose ends in what becomes an alarmingly clunky coda.

Whatever really happened under the haycart between the adolescent Laurie Lee, Rosie and her jar of cider – and accounts vary – Lee's evocative observations on rural life in Slad, Gloucestershire, remain highly evocative. Reflecting upon a world that has long disappeared, Lee describes a rites-of-passage journey which, though not without its hardships and dangers, seems blissful in comparison with the culture of gangs, drugs and guns surrounding children today.

Theresa Heskins's production of Cider with Rosie has enough telling detail without being fussy. And while there are several imaginative touches in Michael Holt's visual creation (the miniature-village set and snow-covered pastures) both director and designer are confident enough to leave the acting space clear for some larger-than-life characterisations. The simple, in-the-round staging, a sort of Brecht-meets music-hall-meets-docudrama, which wisely avoids imposing any stylised unreality on Lee's vision, suits the Vic's versatile space. Nick Darke's adaptation shows a keen ear for dialogue and sensitivity in the marvellous narrative which translates Lee's characters from page to stage and the nine-strong cast makes light of the various roles most have to play.

In addition to portraying Lee's brothers and sisters, brimming with childlike merry laughter and petty sibling squabbles, the actors cross gender and age barriers to play warring grannies, doddery squire, smug vicar, eccentric uncle, suicidal Miss Flynn and farmhands. The unaccompanied, folkish singing also adds a delightful touch.

'Lisa's Sex Strike', until 22 September (01204 520 661) then touring ( 'Cider With Rosie', until 22 September (01782 717962) then at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, 25 September to 6 October (01723 370 541)