My One and Only, Piccadilly, London<br></br>Lady Windermere's Fan, Haymarket Theatre Royal, London<br></br>The Mysteries, Queen's, London<br></br>Nightsongs, Royal Court Downstairs, London

Let's not call the whole thing off - not yet anyway
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The Independent Culture

It wasn't love at first sight, for me, when the curtain rose on My One and Only. The stage is dripping with glitzy clichés in Peter Stone and Timothy S Mayer's Eighties musical – which slips songs by George and Ira Gershwin into a romance set in 1920s New York. As thousands of ersatz stars twinkle and our soon-to-be sweethearts (Janie Dee and Tim Flavin) tiptoe through bucketloads of dry ice, one is tempted to mutter: "Let's call the whole thing off". However, I changed my tune. Loveday Ingram's revival, transferring from Chichester, proves to be tongue-in-cheek about show biz conventions. And it's warmly sexy due to Dee and Flavin's great chemistry. That's evident as soon as he claps eyes on her and launches into the love-struck ditty, "Blah Blah, Blah" (where gibberish is peppered with allusions to the moon et al).

The storyline is more engaging than you might expect as well. Flavin's Billy is an amateur pilot determined to be the first to fly non-stop to Paris. She's a celebrity channel-swimmer who yearns to be rescued from her conniving trainer who pursues a sideline in sabotage at Billy's hanger.

Sure, several subplots are preposterously flimsy but Billy's expeditions with Edythe are quite charmingly silly – not least crash-landing on a desert island which turns out to be Staten. Some of the cast lack polish but Jenny Galloway – with a girth that'll never be aerodynamic – is terrifically funny as Billy's butch engineer. And memorably, Dee and Flavin's seaside tap routine – as they sing "'S Wonderful" – progresses to an audience-drenching water fight before they whiz off to tie the knot.

The question in Lady Windermere's Fan is whether a marriage can last. The eponymous young wife in Oscar Wilde's Victorian morality play cherishes her puritanical streak. By contrast her estranged, unrecognised mother is re-entering high society under the name of Mrs Erlynne. Regarded as a scandal, she's keeping company with Lord Windermere. One is meant to discern the ambiguity of Wilde's subtitle – A Play About A Good Woman – when the outraged Lady W determines to elope with an admirer and it's Mrs E who saves her. Sad to say, Peter Hall's production makes you want to sue for divorce on grounds of neglect. This is a flagrantly underdirected, star-studded evening. Joely Richardson, though in a splendid gown, is exposed as a desperately poor actress. She's like a frozen fish on her chaise longue, faking shock with her mouth agape for what seems like minutes. One might assume she's imitating 19th-century acting styles. But no, she rattles – with about as much heightened passion as an omnibus – through Lady Windermere's fraught, melodramatic monologues.

It's the areas of ethical ambivalence in Wilde's characters that make this play engrossing. Yet Hall pinpoints few of those. David Yelland's Lord W seems stolidly decent, never nastily strict. As the Duchess of Berwick, Googie Withers is refreshingly twinkly but totally misses the dowager's ghastly imperiousness. And this is all framed by grandiose parades where a gigantic gauzy fan descends and everyone marches around to the strains of a pre-recorded orchestra.

Unequivocally bad? Not quite. Mrs Erlynne is played by Vanessa Redgrave, with steely vigour and the reconciliation scene with her daughter is shot through with true tenderness. Still, this is lazy work overall which leaves Hall looking like the biggest slack muscle in British theatre.

The Mysteries are more electrifying and experimental, transferring to Shaftesbury Avenue from Wilton's Music Hall. The city of Chester's medieval cycle dramatises Bible stories from the Creation and Adam and Eve, through Christ's life to his Resurrection. Under director Mark Dornford-May, the text is reworked by a 40-strong, fantastically choiring, drumming and dancing cast of South African actors – in tribal and modern dress. The set is just sloping planks, scaffolding, and a few beer crates for God's throne.

This show gets off to a wobbly start. It's hard to decipher what in heaven's name the Lord and his archangels are saying when they kick off in English, and some of the acting is distinctly amateur. Nevertheless, when the company slip into their native languages of Xhosa, Zulu and Afrikaans they can be mesmerising. Vumile Nomanyama's God awesomely eludes our understanding with his clicking, reverberating pronouncements. He is, conversely, close to mankind in scenes of carnivalesque rejoicing. After the flood recedes, he beams and accompanies the carousing Noahs by clinking a beer bottle.

The covenant between actor and audience is equally delightful. Noah only has to unfold some trellis fencing and, miraculously, we believe it's a water-tight Ark. This production is full of inspired theatrical shorthand. Simultaneously, a layer of meaning is added as the Testaments are used to make reference to the history of Africa. Herod is a black military dictator and Pontius Pilate a British governor. Nomanyama's Jesus, crucified in jeans, is a social as well as spiritual revolutionary. And when his township followers dance with him in the streets of heaven, it's as much about attaining a happier world here and now.

While The Mysteries end on a note of soaring hope, Nightsongs is a dirge. Jon Fosse's contemporary Norwegian chamber play puts depression under the microscope. An unemployed young man (Paul Higgins), lies on his sofa all day – agoraphobic and often silent. His girlfriend (Sophie Okonedo) is going spare but can't quite move out. Director Katie Mitchell creates a bleak living room on a traverse stage and her excellent actors steer a fine line between stylisation and slice-of-life.

Fosse's dialogue (translated by Gregory Motton) is bald and poetically fractured. Meanwhile, Higgins invests his character's lassitude with complex flickers of paranoia, anger and yearning. Okonedo ensures her bitterness is matted with grief.

The rhythm of the dialogue is deliberately relentless. The problem is that it becomes a bore. Early glimmers of comedy recede, and the young woman's attempts to leave drag on so long that Nightsongs ends up like Waiting For Godot without the gags. Hard work.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'My One and Only': Piccadilly, London W1 (020 7369 1734), to 11 Jan 2003; 'Lady Windermere's Fan': Haymarket Theatre Royal, London SW1 (0870 901 3356), to 8 June; 'The Mysteries': Queen's, London W1 (0870 890 1110), to 6 April; 'Nightsongs': Royal Court Downstairs, London SW1 (020 7565 5100), to 23 March

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