Love the Sinner, NT Cottesloe, London<br/>Salome, Curve, Leicester<br/>A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky, Lyric Hammersmith, London

Liberals and conservatives of the Church negotiate their way through a curate's egg of a story
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The Independent Culture

The leaders are holed up in prolonged negotiations. The clock is ticking. They've got to reach a deal, smooth over their differences, present a united front. Given the past week, Love the Sinner sounds like a timely Westminster drama. In fact, this is a state-of-the-Anglican-Church play, by fledgling writer Drew Pautz, with its primary focus on homophobia.

So, in Act One, we're flies-on-the-wall at an African conference hotel. Here, the liberals and conservatives are bishops from around the globe, all getting hot under their dog collars as they struggle to find schism-avoiding common ground.

Director Matthew Dunster's ensemble gets off to a good start, combining power games and theological debate, all with a sharp eye for subtle prejudices. The battle lines are drawn between Nancy Crane's Hannah – tolerantly smiling but perhaps latently racist – and Louis Mahoney's Paul. He's an African traditionalist, staunchly anti-Sodom.

Pautz allows Paul to argue forcefully that the First World liberals are destroying the Church's authority by tinkering with its enshrined beliefs, and that they're imperialists underneath too, dismissing his contingent's views as merely backward. At the same time, too, it's possible that misogyny drives his scorn for Hannah.

After that, regrettably, the play goes off the boil, zooming in on Jonathan Cullen's Michael, an English volunteer who's seen quietly helping on the conference sidelines, but who has a closet-gay liaison with the hotel porter, Josef (scintillating newcomer, Fiston Barek). Josef feverishly demands asylum in Britain and, back home, Michael is embroiled in further cultural clashes. His marriage hits the rocks as, in denial about his sexuality, he grows more fundamentalist.

But Cullen and Charlotte Randle's domestic dispute is never moving. For all its rapid fire it sounds oddly stiff, not realistic. Pautz is particularly heavy-handed with symbolic analogies, the guilt-ridden Michael harping on about an "infestation" and "dangerous plague" of squirrels in his attic. (Tennessee Williams's pestilent iguana pales by comparison.)

The next conflict, too, falls satirically flat: a managerial meeting at Michael's small business, with staff irked by his evangelical work ethics. Basically, neither this writer nor his director's skills are yet fully honed, so Love the Sinner proves a curate's egg.

Still, it becomes gripping again at the end, with Barek's furious Josef shacked up in the basement of Michael's local church, threatening a media exposé. Ian Redford is on superb form: wholly believable as the bearded, mild archbishop who hovers between ruinous indecisiveness and deep compassion, even as his aghast PR man (Scott Handy, also excellent) becomes merciless.

John the Baptist ends up decapitated for refusing to get into bed with the sexually provocative, taboo-breaking princess in Oscar Wilde's Salome. Jamie Lloyd's touring production, for Headlong, of this rarely-aired exotic drama seems a disappointing drag at first, in spite of its trendy updating.

Herod's multi-cultural guards swagger around in modern combat gear, sometimes swinging off a tower of black scaffolding (design by Soutra Gilmour). One commando tries delivering his florid archaic similes (likening Salome's beauty to the pale moon) as a hip-hop routine. It's sort of castle battlements-meets-rock concert.

Zawe Ashton's lithe Salome then prances in, a nymphomaniacal IT girl, unzipping to flash her bikini top at the boys, then endlessly preening and wantonly shoving her hand down her pants. I imagine not everybody in the audience became bored by this.

The main problem is that, with Herod's court portrayed as so openly decadent, it is hard to imagine there being anyone left to shock. Salome's mother and stepfather, Jaye Griffiths's Herodias and Con O'Neill's Herod, are such trashed party animals – using their palace of minions like a swingers' club – that one cannot help wondering if anyone will bat an eyelid when he asks Salome to perform a striptease.

What's remarkable, however, is the way Ashton makes her seem increasingly innocent. Her Dance of the Seven Veils – in clumpy heels, to a tinny ghetto blaster – is deliberately more rushed and perfunctory than pornographic. O'Neill, meanwhile, puts in a bravura display, spraying spittle, beating his burly chest like a gorilla and capturing Wilde's extraordinary switches between grandiloquence and satirical bathos.

Lloyd's staging also reveals the hair-raising power of the Bacchae-like closing image: Ashton's Salome, a crazily perverted lover, clasping the Baptist's severed head and passionately kissing his forbidden, dead lips.

Her victim prophesied a punitive apocalypse, "that day when the sun shall become black" and "the heavens shall fall upon the earth". Well, the end is very nigh indeed in A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky. A dysfunctional family – five estranged brothers and other relatives – gather on their aged mother's farm. The eldest son (Nigel Cooke) has terminal cancer, another's a junkie, and, apparently, some cosmic strings (astrological faultlines) have shifted so the whole human race is poised to bite the dust.

Worse, though, A Thousand Stars is punishingly interminable. The cast, barely helped by artistic director Sean Holmes, cannot possibly save the day given this dismally lax attempt at collaborative playwriting by Simon Stephens, David Eldridge and Robert Holman. Loose at the seams is putting it mildly, with piecemeal timewarps and bewilderingly banal patches. What would you discuss in your last minute on earth? The history of cheese?

'Love the Sinner' (020-7452 3000) to 10 July; 'Salome' (headlongtheatre. touring to 17 July; 'A Thousand Stars' (0871 221 1722) to 5 June

Next Week:

Kate Bassett sees Chichester's update on Yes, Prime Minister