Pinter's People, Theatre Royal Haymarket, LONDON <br/> Uncle Vanya, Wilton's Music Hall LONDON <br/> Ghosts, Old Vic, Bristol

Pause - for laughter
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The Independent Culture

Some years back, a West End row erupted about the Comedy Theatre potentially being renamed in honour of the master of the sinister pause, Pinter. This sparked the witty suggestion from Tom Stoppard that his august colleague could just change his own name instead - to Harold Comedy. We're still waiting. But now there is a development as, round the corner at the Haymarket, the star comedian Bill Bailey is bringing Sir Harold's funny side to the fore, executive-producing an evening of the playwright's largely overlooked comic sketches.

Pinter's People is a medley of 14 vignettes, spanning 1959 to 2006. Delightfully, these are attracting not just Pinter aficionados but also comedy fans of all ages, because they're being performed by Bailey, Sally Phillips (from Smack the Pony) and others, under the direction of Sean Foley (from the Right Size). It must be said that some of the ensemble go for caricatures and physical clowning which plough through Pinter's subtler wit and darker undertones. The mobile phone dialogue, "Apart from That" (2006) - where feeling wretched is conversationally held at arm's length - is played out too lightly and literally, with a pair of hospitalised invalids (Phillips and Kevin Eldon) in traction and on an intravenous drip.

Nevertheless, the comedians' timing is spot-on and they bring out a remarkably charming, humane warmth in Pinter's writing too. Some of the early sketches actually make him seem akin to Alan Bennett as he captures the near-surreal chat of tramps and other mindlessly banal conversations. Bailey is fine-tuned and particularly touching as the blankly staring, teasing but also patient caff owner in "Last to Go", talking in laughably slow small circles with Eldon's simple-minded newspaper hawker. These two are again wonderfully funny and then chilling as the infuriated radio controller and weirdly taciturn minicab driver in the brilliant farce/psycho thriller, "Victoria Station".

Chekhov's people are usually caught in a more delicate balance of tragicomedy, idling yet simmering with frustration in their Russian backwaters. Unfortunately, what ought to be a top-notch fringe production of Uncle Vanya - with an eye-catching cast including Rachael Stirling and Ronan Vibert - proves painfully disappointing. Actor-turned-director Hugh Fraser is largely to blame, leaving most of his cast looking lamentably awkward, in fact almost amateur. The low-budget approach - using David Mamet's adaptation, performed as if we're watching a rehearsal in everyday gear - would be OK if only Fraser had filled in any fine detailing as regards naturalistic body language or indications of all the pain and passions running below the surface.

Playing the unhappily married beauty, Yelena - who enthralls Vanya and the doctor, Astrov - Stirling is ridiculously rigid, delivering her big speeches as if she's on sentry duty. Vibert as Astrov tries his best to send out ambiguous signals to Catherine Cusack's Sonya but, though good at gawkiness, she seems to keep forgetting that she's agonisingly smitten. Colin Stinton is stolid in the title role, though he explodes fierily in the end. It's got to be bad when you'd rather spend time with the pompous old professor, Serebryakov - a vibrantly bombastic Philip Voss.

Frank McGuinness's new version of Ghosts, staged by actor-director Robert Bowman, is far more commendable. Performed in a grey period drawing room, McGuinness implies that Ibsen's tragedy about false façades of Christian decency could be set in an Anglo-Irish mansion. The snappy housemaid, Regine (excellent Séainín Brennan), and her wily, priest-conning father, Engstrand (John Stahl), both speak with a brogue. McGuinness is also alert to Ibsen's scathing humour, giving Simon Shepherd's Pastor Manders some amusingly prissy turns of phrase.

Shepherd and Sian Thomas's Mrs Alving should, however, surely exude more repressed sexual attraction. She gives a strong but not deeply poignant performance, teetering on archaic melodrama at the close. This is no match for Niamh Cusack's heartrending portrayal of the same woman, currently at the London Gate. But Sam Crane as Thomas's desperately ill son - infected by inherited syphilis - is a superb, scruffy, bitterly feverous Oswald. I'd like to see his Hamlet.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'Pinter's People' (0870 380 2003) to 23 Feb; 'Uncle Vanya' (020 7702 2789) to Sat; 'Ghosts' (0117 987 7877) to 17 Feb

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