Othello, Crucible, Sheffield<br/>My City, Almeida, London<br/>Grief, NT Cottesloe, London

Detective-drama star-casting makes for an unsettling tragedy, and Lesley Manville is heartbreaking in Mike Leigh's latest
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The Independent Culture

Dominic West is rather startling as a villain.

Though best known as Jimmy McNulty, the crime-busting Baltimore cop from The Wire, he recently played the serial killer Fred West on the small screen. And now he's on stage in a major Sheffield Crucible production of Othello as the malevolent army officer, Iago, who dupes and destroys his general – infecting him with unjustified jealousy.

This piece of star casting has an additional twist, as the play's titular, tragically gullible hero is played by Clarke Peters (aka McNulty's fellow detective in The Wire).

Artistic director Daniel Evans's staging is in period costume with Bellini-era Venetian detail, but West's Iago comports himself like a bluff Yorkshireman (the actor originally hails from Sheffield). Shorn-headed and burly in leather doublet, he is the life and soul of a barracks party, couching bigotry in jocularity and egging on a night of laddish boozing that turns into a brawl – this when the colonial outpost of Cyprus has only just been declared safe from marauding Turks, and when Othello is supposed to be consummating his marriage to the young beauty Desdemona (Lily James).

West occasionally grins, as if impishly enjoying himself when stirring up trouble. The Yorkshire accent brings out the ribald earthiness of Iago's language and – combined with West's popularity as McNulty – encourages complicit laughter when this hoodwinking rogue addresses the audience directly, plotting his fiendish ruses on the hoof.

His self-justifications are, occasionally, punctuated with flashes of racial hatred and sexual insecurity. The beefy neck twitches when he harps on his claim that the Moor may have cuckolded him. However, the sense that West is driven by profoundly twisted emotions isn't sustained. Though Evans picks up on the men's alternative marriage oath (Iago kneeling with Othello and swearing, "I am your own forever"), West barely explores the sexual creepiness of the hugs he dispenses or of Iago's fantasy of bed-sharing with an amorous Lieutenant Cassio.

That said, West's ultimate lack of remorse is unsettling, as he cocks his head with mild curiosity at the sight of the carnage he has caused – a bridal bed strewn with corpses.

Othello's fall is more poignantly and closely charted. Peters starts out with great dignity and gentleness. Only gradually succumbing to jittering madness and jealousy, he tries to brush aside his fears, but is visibly thrown by Iago's suggestion that, as Johnny Foreigner, he hasn't grasped that most women are covert adulteresses. Before that, the adoring tenderness he shows towards Desdemona is unforgettably touching. Lily James, in turn, manages to mix girlish naivety with determined devotion. The production has some clumsy moments and the supporting cast are largely unremarkable, yet its main thrust is impressive.

Iago, as a destructive yarnspinner, may have a rival in Tracey Ullman's Miss Lambert. She's an ex-headmistress and compulsive storyteller apparently luring two former pupils to a gruesome end in My City, Stephen Poliakoff's first new stage play in 12 years.

Richard and Julie (Tom Riley and Sian Brooke) fondly remember Miss Lambert's remedial lessons and assemblies, when she told tales about ye olde London Town. However, when they cross paths with her years later and agree to a night out, she's sour and sinister, telling tales of ghosts, lost souls and psychopaths, allegedly accrued on the nocturnal wanderings that now fill her time.

Alas, it's Poliakoff who has really lost the plot here. Directed by the playwright, Ullman manages to be creepy and blackly comical, like a nightmare Mary Poppins with her large handbag and pursed lips. David Troughton is also ghoulishly fixated on the past as her sidekick, Mr Minken. But all the suspense is a red herring, as My City dwindles into a cheesy theatre-as-therapy session. With the flashbacks to Lambert's assemblies little better than Listen With Mother, they nearly finished me off.

"I just want my little girl back," laments Dorothy in Mike Leigh's gently satirical, then heartbreaking new play, Grief. Lesley Manville's Dorothy is a suburban war widow who – stuck in the aspic of mourning and pre-1950s mores – can't cope with her sullen teenager, Victoria (Ruby Bentall). Garrulous old pals pop by, trying to jolly them along, but this is, between the lines, a portrait of unspoken despair.

In that, Grief is strikingly akin to Ecstasy, Leigh's recently revived 1979 bedsit drama. However, it makes you see how much this writer-director has in common with Rattigan too.

Though the period lingo ("TTFN", "chin chin" etc) can sound compiled, the household's quiet agonies are charted with acute delicacy. Everything is muted in Dorothy's taupe, carpeted living room in a way that's deliberately undramatic yet intense, making you hypersensitive to the merest flicker of stifled emotion. Manville's powdered face is a fragile mask. Sam Kelly is also superb as her stodgy elderly brother, who offers too few words of comfort. Holing up in a corner, he takes cover behind The Times, but sometimes he will, sotto voce, sing an old wartime love song with her. Extraordinarily poignant.

'Othello' (0114-249 6000) to 15 Oct; 'My City' (020-7359 4404) to 5 Nov; 'Grief' (020-7452 3000) to 28 Jan, then touring

Next Week:

Claudia Pritchard casts her eye over The Playboy of the Western World

Theatre Choice

Rupert Goold's Decade recreates the twin towers' skyline restaurant and weighs up 9/11's aftermath. Many writers chip in, and it's directed with flair for the National Theatre at St Katharine Dock to 15 Oct. The Wild Bride is Kneehigh's folktale of devilish abuse and resilience, with terrific live blues music, at Oxford Playhouse (Tue to Sat).

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