Pandora's Box, Playhouse, Newcastle; <br></br>The Clearing, Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford; <br></br>A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, Richmond Theatre

A femme fatale in bovver boots
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The Independent Culture

Everybody lusts after Lulu. The sexually liberal heroine of Frank Wedekind's fin de siècle tragedy is a femme fatale of legendary proportions. And that is reflected in Pandora's Box, Kneehigh's new multi-media adaptation, currently touring the country. The set looks like a grand city reduced to rubble: chandeliers slumped on shattered floorboards. Blending Victorian and modern dress, ghoulish gents swarm and drop like flies around Lulu as she socially climbs from abused street trash to model to flesh-flaunting celeb and rich serial widow. She even devastates a countess en route, before she falls into destitute whoring and is savagely exterminated by Jack the Ripper.

Erotic females and disturbing, gory punishments are Kneehigh's forte judging by their previous hit, The Red Shoes, where the folk heroine was a wild dancer with dripping, blood-red feet. Co-created with Newcastle's Northern Stage Ensemble, Pandora's Box isn't as electrifying, but can be startlingly inspired and haunting.

One surprise is that Lulu is embodied by a hefty lass. Emma Rice, in bovver boots and a tutu with black punky hair, looks something like Siouxsie Sioux crossed with Billy Bunter. Yet this is peculiarly brilliant casting, for Rice's Lulu can be viewed as a monster but simultaneously manages to be far more alluring than Anna Friel was in the same role at the Almeida last year. Rice's voluptuousness suggests power but she has vulnerability too and flirts with an unsettling, childlike innocence.

In other respects, the evening (co-directed by Rice and Neil Murray) can drag. Several characters are inaudible and drift about distractingly. Neither the introduction of lingering ghosts nor the musical interludes – performed in the style of a macabre cabaret-cum-rock gig – conceal the weakly episodic nature of Wedekind's drama. Still, the whirling gypsy tunes of Stu Barker's on-stage band encapsulate Lulu's inescapable spiral downwards. Also mesmerising is the closing film footage where – accompanied by a speech about sharks – Rice swims above us in glimmering green water, smiling down and ambiguously hovering between predator and victim.

In The Clearing we find Madeleine, an Irish Catholic woman with a wild, though not lascivious side. She would be loyally loving towards her ex-pat English husband, Robert, but ends up fighting for her own kind against Cromwell's repressive forces and her spouse who betrays her to preserve his social status.

Helen Edmundson's wrenching period drama – written in the 1990s and strongly revived by Shared Experience – zooms in on the ferocious clearances or "transportations" of the mid-17th century when the Lord Protector's troops rounded up Irish Catholics and any Protestants who didn't tow the line. Madeleine's dearest friends are forced off their farms and banished to inhospitable Connaught or to virtual enslavement in Barbados. This is a bleak history lesson with reverberations for contemporary Ireland and countless other racially and religiously divided territories.

Occasionally, Edmundson's dialogue veers close to the gushingly romantic, but she boldly yokes undiluted passion with chilling politics. Director Polly Teale channels intense emotions into naturalistic performances and her cast are excellent. Aislín McGuckin's Madeleine grows ferocious with grief while Richard Attlee's Sturman, Cromwell's regional governor, is a quietly spoken, raving xenophobe whose mercilessness makes your hair stand on end.

If Robert ditches his wife to secure his property, wedlock is hardly regarded as an obstacle to material wealth in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. Virtually everyone is wanton and greedy in Thomas Middleton's early Jacobean comedy of manners – given a rare but hardly rewarding airing by the Almeida's touring wing.

It is Lent and the selling of meat is forbidden. On the streets of London, though, officers turn a blind eye for a bribe. And female flesh is being marketed shamelessly, too. A goldsmith is bent on marrying off his unwilling daughter, Moll, to rich Sir Walter Whorehound. A neighbour, Allwit, seeks to scupper that because he lives in luxury by renting out his spouse to the aforementioned seedy knight... and so on.

Ideally, this should be a stinging and ever-pertinent satire of sex and the city, of amorality's links with commerce. Unfortunately, Middleton's plot and moral stance just seem muddled. Numerous characters rush through never to be seen again. The playwright isn't above desperately coarse innuendoes and the rushed romantic ending – where chaste Moll and her sweetheart die, miraculously recover and marry – doesn't wash.

I've a suspicion that a brilliant director – by generating a sense of bustling life and honing mood-shifts – could make A Chaste Maid seem a forgotten gem and fascinating problem play. But alas, Ben Harrison makes a pig's ear of this show, clumsily trying to sustain a comic tone throughout.

Most of his cast are lacklustre, flatly ploughing through their archaic repartee so you can hardly follow. Greta Cuneo's costumes, though sometimes hip, jumble epochs together incoherently, and bursts of punk rock are tossed in at inappropriate points.

Only the fine actor Stephen Boxer shines. He sparks into life as Allwit, combining humour with shocking kinkiness and frightening cool. Still, I've got my standards. I wouldn't revisit this production for love nor money.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'Pandora's Box': South Hill Park, Bracknell (01344 484123), Tue to Sat, and touring; 'The Clearing': Arts Theatre, Cambridge (01223 503333), Tue to Sat, and touring; 'A Chaste Maid in Cheapside': Theatre Royal, Bath (01225 448844), Tues to Sat, and touring

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