Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, NT Cottesloe, London Shivered, Southwark Playhouse, London Abigail's Party, Menier Chocolate Factory, London

A tender tragicomedy, set in the Caribbean and first staged in 1958, is revealed as a classic in this sharply observed revival

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The Independent Culture

Don't miss this: revivals of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl are rare and Errol John's seminal Caribbean drama deserves to be recognised as a 20th-century classic. First staged in 1958 and now enjoying a National Theatre production with an excellent ensemble directed by Michael Buffong, John's tough and tender tragicomedy follows a group of neighbours at the end of the Second World War in Trinidad's Port of Spain. Living around a communal yard, they yearn to escape poverty and institutional prejudice.

Ephraim (Danny Sapani) is a bus driver sick of drudgery. If hard-nosed enough, he's going to leave his sweetheart, Rosa, and – as Errol John himself did in 1950 – sail for England, believing better jobs await him there. Rosa (Jade Anouka) has been keeping her importunate old boss (Burt Caesar) at arm's length. He's the rent-amassing landlord of these shacks.

Jenny Jules's Mavis is a brazen hooker, pocketing Yankee sailors' dollars, ogling Ephraim, and having slanging matches with Martina Laird's Sophia, a sorely tried housewife central to the group. Upholding "decent" values, Sophia struggles to keep her boozing husband, Charlie (Jude Akuwudike), straight, and to buy schoolbooks for their bright daughter, Esther.

The Cottesloe's traverse staging suffers poor acoustics, but almost all these actors are beautifully natural within it. Lolling on Ephraim's bed or chatting on Sophia's verandah steps, their talk moves easily between vexed snappiness and a subtle, lovely lyricism. What's sharply observed is the mercurial complexity of each person's behaviour within a community under strain. While Ephraim is protective towards Tahirah Sharif's sweetly innocent Esther, he reveals a chauvinistic edge and a shocking temper, hurling Rosa across the stage. Laird is a phenomenal pillar of matriarchal strength, a scold yet deeply forgiving, almost heartbroken by the end but not without hope.

In Philip Ridley's latest dystopian drama, Shivered, staged by Russell Bolam, a young soldier has returned to his rundown Essex home town from Iraq, or maybe Afghanistan. Robbie Jarvis's Alec has become explosively aggressive. He accuses his dad (Simon Lenagan) of closet homosexuality and his mum (Olivia Poulet) of being a slapper, yet he gets himself in knots about the cleansing morality/twisted sexuality of the fundamentalist executions he has seen abroad.

Alec heads back to the front line only to be captured and horrifyingly decapitated. His kid brother, Ryan (Joseph Drake), befriends another boy (Josh Williams) who compels him to watch the internet video of Alec's death. One act of brutality leads to repercussive horrors. Human kindness, though not obliterated, gets enmeshed with callousness, rackets and claptrap about miracle cures.

Staged in Southwark Playhouse's scarred brick vault, the production has powerfully grim moments. There's a stoning that is surely Ridley's attempt to be dubbed the Edward Bond of his generation. More surprisingly, the piece is also flecked with humour.

Ultimately, though, the acting needs to be edgier, and Shivered feels like several hamfisted plays jammed into one. Parts feel like a yarn for 10-year-olds (Ryan and Jack trying to video Essex's answer to the Loch Ness monster). Jumping back and forth in time generates some suspense, but fails to conceal unconvincing dialogue.

A good time definitely isn't being had by all in Abigail's Party, Mike Leigh's celebrated suburban comedy from 1977, now revived by Lindsay Posner. Abigail (whom we never actually see) is a teen throwing a rowdy party down the road. Her prim mother, Susannah Harker's Susan, has retreated for a supposedly civilised evening of drinks and nibbles at Beverly and Laurence's house, along with Angela and Tony who've just moved in across the way.

Of course, Jill Halfpenny's Beverly is the hostess from hell, blithely insensitive and a shameless trollop. She can't wait to get her hands on Joe Absolom's surly Tony, driving her stolid husband (Andy Nyman) into paroxysms of rage.

Harker is wonderful at mutely registering bad manners with widening eyes. Natalie Casey is hilariously gormless as Angela. Halfpenny's leering slinkiness is monstrously funny, even if the estuary drawl wears thin. However, Beverly's lounge, with its lava lamp and flokati rug, looks more retro chic than social aspiration now.

The real snag is that the script seems baggy in its first half and, in the second, ratcheted up with little sense of genuine distress. In fact, Abigail's Party, this time round, resembles a shallow rejig of Absent Friends, Alan Ayckbourn's subtler portrait of soured surburban marriage, recently and impressively revived on an almost identical set. So it's déjà vu, here, with diminishing returns.

 

'Moon on a Rainbow Shawl': (020-7452 3000) to 9 Jun. 'Shivered' (020-7407 0234) to 14 Apr. 'Abigail's Party': (020-7378 1713) to 21 Apr then Theatre Royal Bath (01225 448844) 23 to 28 Apr.

 

Theatre Choice

Ben Chaplin is superb in Farewell to the Theatre, Richard Nelson's bio-drama about Harley Granville-Barker. It's a Chekhovian group portrait really, staged by Roger Michell at the Hampstead Theatre, London (to 7 Apr). The Carriageworks in Leeds hosts Thirsty, a tragicomic portrait of booze-soaked British women by The Paper Birds (Tues & Wed).

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