Messiah: Scenes From a Crucifixion, Old Vic, London<br></br>Skellig, Young Vic, London<br></br>Excuses! Soho Theatre, London

Between heaven and hell
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The Independent Culture

Jesus is hovering between life and death and the afterlife in Messiah at the Old Vic. In fact, you cannot ultimately be sure whether he has risen or simply bitten the dust in the gospel according to Steven Berkoff. This is a markedly "alternative" Christmas show, firstly because it centres around Calvary rather than the nativity and, secondly, because Berkoff offers several versions of events. In the beginning, Greg Hicks' Christ is dying on the cross. Caught in a harsh shaft of light, he stands with his sinewy torso stripped bare. Obviously suffering greatly as human flesh, he cries out in agony and anger. We also have to endure the details of his gruesome corporeal suffering: "Fear squeezed my bowels and slimed the cross" etc. Then his tone changes and he lyrically ascends, proclaiming that he is joy, he is light, he is flying skywards in a divine line that is perfect.

The action then rewinds and - slotted in amongst monologues by Pilate, Judas and others - Hicks is seen preaching to the masses and instructing his disciples. He seems to have healing powers and a missionary zeal. Yet the non-believer in Berkoff also presents Jesus as a canny revolutionary and showman who, beyond criticising the authorities, knows how to wow a crowd and fulfil prophesies so he gets labelled as the Son of God. In one scene, he actually plans to counterfeit giving up the ghost and to escape from the tomb by a back passage. Finally, he is seen on the cross again. This time round it seems he bleeds to death but still insists the Apostles report a resurrection.

One might say Berkoff was sitting on the fence concerning the crucifixion. His point is, presumably, that there is no single gospel truth. Berkoff's interpretation of biblical characters is certainly bold and sometimes thought-provoking. Helen Schlesinger's Mary, weeping over her son's corpse, insists he was divinely conceived with a passion that suggests her faith might spring from a fevered imagination. Meanwhile Hicks, in a taut performance, exudes supreme haughtiness even as he champions the poor

Unfortunately, Berkoff's writing and mime-based directing too often look B-rate and dated these days. There is a stark simplicity about the black and white visuals but his chorus, when not prowling around in slow motion, launch into revoltingly crude caricatures of cockney thugs and conniving Jews. Just as his poetry starts to soar, he tosses in some hackneyed imagery, and repetition with variation becomes a thunderous bore as he stretches out monologues with endless paraphrases. His own swaggering but slack performance as the devil - swathed in black leather - looks like sheer vanity.

He says he's nobody and he's sick to death. Skellig is a grumpy old tramp or maybe an ailing angel, or possibly the Grim Reaper or purely a figment of the imagination. In David Almond's award-winning children's story - newly adapted by the author and staged by Trevor Nunn - the schoolboy Michael (stocky Kevin Wathen) finds Skellig (skeletal David Threlfall) slumped behind piles of junk in a garage, eating spiders and testily quipping "I'm mostly Arthur" (as in Arthuritis). There are two bony, feathery protuberances under his mouldy overcoat. Actually, he's something like an angel crossed with an archaeopteryx and Fungus the Bogeyman and that vintage miseryguts, Scrooge.

Michael has been having a tough time. His parents have moved into this near-derelict house that desperately needs renovation. Furthermore, his mum has had baby girl who is dangerously ill and may not survive. Michael is deeply unsettled by all this. He has days off school and (either for real or in his mind) gets up at night to question and anxiously feed leftovers to Skellig. Fortunately, he also makes friends with Mina, the eccentric girl-next-door who is artistic, knows all about birds and helps with Skellig. Eventually, Skellig is - in a way - born again and responds to the children with tender benevolence. En route to an extremely sweet resolution with the baby, Almond's tale sensitively probes dark corners of Michael's mind, and deals with sibling jealousy, stress, courage and the complexities of caring.

This production is a mite disappointing. Since Grimm Tales, the Young Vic's house style at Christmas has been physical theatre, working with bare boards and wonderful inventiveness. That would be perfect for Almond, who is fascinated by and encourages our powers of imagination, but Nunn's approach is often rather uninspired and literal. All the clobber, it seems, has to be on stage if we are going to visit the garage. As a matter of fact, this grey garbage looks suspiciously like the set of Nunn and Napier's deceased hit, Cats, and, oh yes, this turns out to be another musical, with a three or four half-baked songs set to excruciatingly plodding tunes by Shaun Davey. Unfortunately, Akiya Henry's Mina is an irritating bossy-boots too.

Nonetheless, the evening manages to be enjoyable in the main, and the children in the audience - ranging from the very young to secondary-school age - all seemed absorbed. There are several wizard moments, including the baby flying through the air like a tiny ghost and owls swooping over the audience. The ensemble are warmly charismatic, collectively narrating the story. Antony Byrne is terrific as Michael's bouncy, affectionate, exasperated Dad and Threlfall's Skellig is splendidly cantankerous, scarily cadaverous, and surprisingly loveable.

Excuses! offers one or two far more wickedly amusing moments. This 1990's Catalan farce about two designer couples has been translated into sporadically awkward English for ATC's British premiere and, really, it is a shallow, schematic satire. Matthew and Olivia live in a chic flat, but chaos is just round the corner. A bossy manager, she has organised a romantic dinner to break the news that she's pregnant. Then feeble Matthew's pushy mate, Christian, turns up, snorting coke, and trying to cheat on his girlfriend using Matthew's mobile. A year later, there's an even more disastrous reunion, when Olivia and Matthew have turned into neurotic baby-bores. Bizarrely, director David Grindley hasn't paced the comedy at all, so his cast - including Doon "Smack The Pony" Mackichan as Olivia - appear to be racing each other to the last line. That ATC doesn't bother including any biographical programme note about the playwrights, Joel Joan and Jordi Sýnchez, seems equally careless for a new writing company. Still, the sheer energy gradually wins you over, the quarrels are scattered with explosively wild jokes and the mayhem escalating in a smoking cot is horribly, irresistibly funny.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'Skellig': Young Vic, London SE1 (020 7928 6363), to 23 January; 'Messiah': Old Vic, London SE1 (020 7928 7616), to 3 January; 'Excuses!': Soho, London W1 (020 7478 0100), to 10 January

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