Nicholas Nickleby, Festival Theatre, Chichester<br/>Tonight at 8.30, Minerva, Chichester<br/>The Last Five Years, Menier Chocolate Factory, London

Soft, strong and very very long
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The Independent Culture

Perhaps the Monsterists are gaining some ground. There's a band of dramatists, including Richard Bean, who've been arguing that plays should get bigger again, be more boldly panoramic after years of low-budget chamber pieces. Recently, the National's new commissions, Southwark Fair and Market Boy, have invited comparison with Ben Jonson's sprawling, almost-Dickensian Bartholomew Fair. And now, amongst other ambitious revivals, Chichester Festival's new Artistic Director Jonathan Church is - with great gusto and a 22-strong ensemble - restaging David Edgar's specially revised adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, of which the 1980 RSC premiere was unforgettably thrilling.

This is an epic two-parter but the time flies as we follow the adventures and struggles of the virtuous Nicholas and his sister Kate who find themselves penniless and at the mercy of their mercenary uncle, Ralph, and his cronies. Dickens' bustling London (as designed by Simon Higlett) is a jumble of dwarfish slum and town houses, crammed round a wharf that thrusts out dynamically into the audience.

Co-directed by Philip Franks, Church's actors are tightly choreographed, whirling about in their Victorian top hats and hooped frocks, playing multiple roles.

Zoë Waites is terrifically funny, amorously pursuing Daniel Weyman's Nicholas, first as the monstrous, stomping Fanny Squeers, then as the saucy swishing diva, Miss Snevellicci, when Nicholas runs away to join a theatre troupe. Bob Barrett is also outstanding - first as the hugely lovable, earthy miller, John Browdie, and then as Lord Verisopht who threatens to harass Hannah Yelland's Kate but who turns and challenges his debauched chums, losing his life in a duel. Edgar's fluid weave of dialogue and third-person narration is very poignant there as Barrett moves downstage to describe the beautiful trees and fields that framed Verisopht's final walk. He speaks with a quiet ecstasy as if spiritually stepping out of himself.

Leigh Lawson, meanwhile, is an intriguingly subtle, cold Ralph with vestiges of tenderness deep down. Susan Jameson is perfect as his naïvely wittering sister-in-law. As his clerk, John Ramm's ratty Newman Noggs is a menacing grotesque, then startlingly funny, whining good Samaritan. It must be said, the scenes of cruelty at the school run by Pip Donaghy's grimacing Mr Squeers are underpowered. As Smike, David Dawson most regrettably seems to confuse cerebral palsy with putting on a Russian accent. Weyman's Nicholas, in turn, could exude more fiery moral outrage. But he warms up with the hilariously histrionic touring thesps. And ultimately, Nicholas's happy ending is pointedly interlaced with a mournful anxiety and an inspiring drive to keep fighting corruption and reforming society.

Over in the Minerva studio, we have another two-parter which is, at once, a sizeable and miniature event. Tonight at 8.30 is a matinee-and-evening double bill of - in all - six short plays by Noël Coward. Originally written in the 1930s as a showcase for the actor-dramatist and Gertrude Lawrence, these are intriguing, rarely seen pieces, a sophisticated version of Variety, thematically interconnected and also, at points, emotionally serious and experimental.

Red Peppers, the first offering, is a pretty feeble dressing-room skit about a quarrelsome, downmarket comic duo. Director Lucy Bailey's forte is not physical clowning. Her milked gag with a guest-throttling telephone flex spoilt Hands Across the Sea for me, obscuring the subtler absurdities of the confused conversations in this satire of a socialite in thrall to her telephone. However, Bailey's productions are also visually stylish, with several stunning sets by Dick Bird, and her role-switching cast includes Alexander Hanson who slides effortlessly between styles and social classes.

A disturbing blend of humour and menace develops in Fumed Oak in which Hanson depicts a lowly husband suddenly laying into his sour wife (Josefina Gabrielle). This piece also strikingly foreshadows the frustration and marital hatred unleashed in Look Back in Anger by John Osborne (a Coward fan). The Astonished Heart exposes a harrowingly obsessive extramarital affair whilst Shadow Play - about another rocky marriage - slips weirdly between reality and nostalgic dreams, despair and musical ditties.

Maybe the timing is slightly unfortunate for the British premiere of The Last Five Years, composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown's 2001 New York chamber musical. Brown's set-up and structure is very close to that of Shadow Play, overlaying the painful present and romantic memories as it depicts a contemporary couple breaking up. It also has corny moments. However, Brown's musical pastiches are, more often, knowingly satirical and cleverly constructed, ranging from vintage Broadway to acoustic rock'n'roll. The Menier's fringe production is characteristically excellent too, directed by Matthew White, with a double bed spinning slowly like a drifting boat. Both his young singers, Lara Pulver and the electrifyingly charismatic Damian Humbley, will surely go far.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'Nicholas Nickleby, Parts I & II', 'Tonight at 8.30' (01243 781312) both to 2 September; 'The Last Five Years' (0871 230 2616) to 30 September

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