Pool (No Water), Lyric Hammersmith, London <br/> The Duchess of Malfi, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds <br/> Up from the Waste, Soho Theatre, London </p>

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The Independent Culture

If a review of Mark Ravenhill's new play were titled in his own style, it could be called "Too Many F***ing Cooks". The author's collaboration with composer Imogen Heap, film-maker Jacob Love, and "physical theatre" company Frantic Assembly has resulted in a show that, for all its flailing and twirling, is disjointed and limp. The premise of Pool (no water) is that four friends from art school, scraping a living 10 years on, witness the horrific accident of a former friend who is wealthy and successful (if only, pouts one of them, "in the eyes of the so-called world"). They decide to turn their envy to good account by making (in what seems a singularly ill-regulated hospital) artistic photographs of her two-month convalescence, manipulating her body in ways that got soldiers into trouble in Iraq. Even to those who haven't seen Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, the idea is an obvious one, and it isn't extended by whooshing noises, strobe lights, or colour film of airplanes and water. Indeed, the intervals of often languid music and movement merely create breaks, like TV commercials, in the play's narrative and mood.

Ravenhill's two young men and two women first seem at least mildly sympathetic; then they are vicious (they stand round their friend's broken body, spitting anger and contempt, before calling an ambulance); then they are laughed into insignificance. The switch in tone, the ludicrously improbable circumstances, and the impulsive, self-indulgent behaviour of the quartet add up to an adolescent fantasy by a writer whose main emotion seems to be his own, facile contempt for his characters - and perhaps his audience as well. One of the women, buying drugs from her rich friend's exercise coach, asks haughtily, "Is there a personal trainer in the world who doesn't deal as well as train?" Ravenhill may be mocking his character's strenuous cool, but is he not also sneering at his young admirers who can be so easily manipulated?

"Bloodless" seems a funny word for The Duchess of Malfi, but, watching Philip Franks's production, it steals into one's mind long before any of the numerous bodies hits the floor. Franks has set Webster's carnival of anti-clericalism, incest, and murder in a postwar Italy of Dior-clad women, men in sharp, dark suits, and chrome furniture. But the actors seem stranded on the huge, empty stage, and the last-act setting, a cross-section of the lowest levels of the palace, is distracting, with a glowing furnace, a bathtub hanging from the ceiling, and Duke Ferdinand (Timothy Walker) grimacing on the upper story while his too-beloved sister is being throttled below.

Like Walker, Guy Williams, as the Cardinal, speaks the verse only moderately well, and often inaudibly, while exuding indifference rather than evil or illicit lust. Sebastian Harcombe, as their creature, Bosola, has the appearance of something half-starved and slimy, but all three seem not so much villainously blasé as sleep-deprived. James Albrecht, as the open-hearted young steward who secretly marries his noble mistress, is not only charming, but speaks with clarity and energy, making the plotters look weirdly ineffectual.

It's weirder still to feel no sympathy for the pathetic duchess, but this one cannot be throttled soon enough. Skipping and squealing and giggling and wriggling, Imogen Stubbs (left) behaves in a manner that is as irritating to us as it is unlikely for a widow in a conservative Catholic country. And, to facilitate a costume change, she wears a white slip whose straps are plainly visible above her off-the-shoulder frock. That would have caused a greater scandal in 1950s Italy than the more conventional sins of priests with lovers, or dukes disposing of inconvenient relatives.

As in The Duchess of Malfi, a kittenish blonde figures in Nancy Meckler's production of Up from the Waste, though this one is more of an alley cat. Antonia Franceschi looks great for a dancer old enough to have worked with George Balanchine, but her nearly-one-woman autobiographical show (another woman and a man dance with her and occasionally speak) ignores her adult success for her gamey childhood on and off New York's mean streets. Her ballet teacher apart, Franceschi seems to have known no one who was not a sexual predator or pervert, but her anecdotes are frequently as risible as they are monotonous. The constant obscenities uttered with elaborate casualness, the anguished depiction of herself as a victim (though much of her sex with strangers was voluntary), the pert poses of defiance create a picture that is flirtatious rather than frank. Considering its content and its lack of thought, this show should have been called "From the Waist Down".

* 'Pool (no water)' 08700 500 511, to 18 November; 'The Duchess of Malfi' 0113 213 7210 to 11 November; 'Up from the Waste' 0870 429 6883 to 11 November

Kate Bassett is away

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