Red Velvet, Tricycle, London
Damned by Despair, NT Olivier, London
Loserville, Garrick, London

The surprise casting of a Victorian production is Lolita Chakrabarti's cue for a layered and revealing play, superbly acted

On 25 March 1833, the crowd flocking into Covent Garden's Theatre Royal doubtless expected a tour de force from Edmund Kean, popularly deemed the greatest actor of his time. Coleridge observed, famously, that to see him act was "like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning", yet the shock reverberating round the auditorium that day in March was of a different ilk. Playing Othello (blacked-up, as was customary), the 46-year-old Kean faltered, cried out "I am dying", and collapsed on stage. He did not live to see the summer.

As Lolita Chakrabarti's new play Red Velvet points up, the really stunning development, however, was the hiring of an African-American actor, Ira Aldridge, to step into Kean's revered shoes – even as British society was riven over the pending Abolition of Slavery Act.

Red Velvet is a fascinating portrait of Aldridge, played here by Adrian Lester on riveting form. Combining historical research and imagination, the biodrama envisages the racial tensions escalating backstage after the progressive theatre manager, Pierre Laporte (Eugene O'Hare), casts his non-Caucasian buddy and dismisses all objections. Lester's Ira plunges into rehearsing his scenes with Desdemona – Charlotte Lucas's Ellen Tree – pushing for more heartfelt feeling and physical contact. The more reactionary members of the company and of the press are outraged – not least Kean's son, Charles (Ryan Kiggell), who is Tree's fiancé.

For sure, Chakrabarti has a great deal to pack in in terms of expositional background and an outline of Aldridge's later years of acclaim in continental Europe. Conceivably, in a lesser production, Red Velvet might feel wooden. But Indhu Rubasingham's superb ensemble grasp that every argument – ethical, political, and aesthetic – is driven by complex personal motivations. Thus history springs into startlingly vigorous life.

The production is beautifully staged, in period costume, on bare wooden boards thrusting out from a battered gold proscenium arch (design by Tom Piper). There are also witty transitions between the formal, pose-striking style of 19th-century acting and warm-blooded naturalism.

Glancing from under auburn ringlets, Lucas's transition from diva-ish froideur to artistic flexibility comes with proto-feminist humour and a faint hint of infidelity. She's supported by outstanding cameos from Natasha Gordon as the deceptively meek Jamaican maidservant, Connie, and newcomer Rachel Finnegan who plays multiple roles with consummate assurance. O'Hare's commercially compromised showdown with Lester is desperately agonised and admonishing too. No one is, morally, black or white. Lester's Ira is electrifying and multilayered, charismatic and loving but also, possibly, a womaniser, hardening into a lonely, bitter egoist.

This is a terrific kick-off for Rubasingham's artistic directorship at the Tricycle, and Lester's prowling, leonine Othello should compare intriguingly with his forthcoming National Theatre performance, in the same role, scheduled for 2013.

Meanwhile, Damned by Despair – a shocking NT flop – merely makes one want to launch oneself despondently off a cliff. But the villainous desperado Enrico pips you to the post in Tirso de Molina's 17th-century morality play. Enrico nosedives into the ocean, only to be saved by God's mercy, bestowed on this serial-killing thug because he has retained a smidgeon of faith. Meanwhile, the long-devout hermit Paulo is conned by the devil into thinking he is irredeemably damned – and therefore he is.

It's not only difficult to comprehend this kind of divine justice, it is also hard to believe quite how bad Bijan Sheibani's underdirected production is, combining some of the lamest acting I've seen this year, a stylistically lurching translation by Frank McGuinness, and largely pointless modern-day costumes. Sebastian Armesto's scruffy Paulo adopts a superficially fevered manner while Bertie Carvel's Enrico, rattling through his lines, sounds about as scary as Larry Grayson. Amanda Lawrence, with her ashen face, makes a creepy Satan. However, designer Giles Cadle's mountainscape is so ill-lit that most of the cast are acting in the dark. No insightful lightning bolts here.

Lastly, in Loserville, a "Eureka" lightbulb is surely going to ping on above Michael Dork's head. Supposedly it's 1971 and he's an American high-school geek (played by Aaron Sidwell), about to invent email with the help of his brainy sweetheart, Holly. I'd like to think some clever teenagers will be heartened by this bully-defeating romcom, co-written by Elliot Davis and James Bourne (of the band Busted). However, you'd have to have a mental age of about six to think this wasn't dumbed-down, formulaic pap, drawing on Grease, Glee and High School Musical.

Designer Francis O'Connor has fun with fast-changing cartoon settings, using giant spiral notepads. I liked the feisty girls in choreographer Nick Winston's arm-whirling chorus line, and Eliza Hope Bennett's Holly shines when she's granted a tiny solo, but the nerdy boys are wearisome and most of the songs are thudders.

'Red Velvet' (020-7328 1000) to 24 Nov; 'Damned by Despair' (020-7452 3000) to 17 Dec; 'Loserville' (0844 412 4662) booking to 2 Mar 2013

Critic's Choice

Cheek by Jowl is touring John Ford's sibling-incest tragedy 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. Electrifying, darkly funny and poignant, it's at Bristol's newly reopened Old Vic (Wed to 3 Nov). The NT's comic hit One Man, Two Guvnors is on tour too, with Rufus Hound and Jodie Prenger, starting at the Curve Theatre, Leicester (Thu to 3 Nov).

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas