Rookery Nook, Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Wuthering Heights, Lyric Hammersmith, London
The Great Game: Afghanistan, Tricycle, London
A saggy script lets down this old-school sex comedy. Elsewhere, Emily Brontë gets a Bollywood makeover and 14 writers tackle Afghanistan
Sunday 03 May 2009
In a farcical fluster, Gerald Popkiss has concealed a golf club down his trousers. Now he's desperately trying to look relaxed as Gertrude, his purse-lipped sister-in-law, eyes him with suspicion. What she doesn't realise is that Harold – her nervously quivering husband, who's meant to be scoring birdies out on the putting green – is hidden behind the door with a young miss in skimpy pyjamas.
For all the scurrying between portals, nothing really changes in your stereotypical sex farce. Rookery Nook by Ben Travers – staged in period costume by Terry Johnson – is a so-called vintage example of the genre from 1926. It's set in an English cottage with roses round the door.
Here Neil Stuke's newly-wed Popkiss, who still fancies the playboy lifestyle, is obliged to offer a bed for the night to a scantily clad runaway – Kellie Shirley's coquettish Rhoda. The scenario contrives to be at once improbable and tediously predictable, with a belligerent German thrown into the mix, snobbish jibes about lumpen housemaids, and ooh-ers when ladies sit on loofahs. One can't help wondering why Johnson chose to revive this old-school nonsense.
To be fair, I attended Johnson's final preview, prior to press night, and his cast will surely become more amusing as the run continues. Nevertheless, Travers' script repeatedly sags. In taut farces with precision-tooled comic timing, the mounting chaos works, paradoxically, like clockwork – or like accelerating clockwork. Here, however, it comes in fits and starts.
Still, Stuke is enjoying himself and it's infectious. He has some explosively funny bits of business, in league with Edward Baker-Duly as his smarmy pal, Clive, and with Mark Hadfield as the pusillanimous, boater-chewing Harold. Stuke takes one terrific tumble, doing the splits with the golf iron still down his trousers. And Baker-Duly goes on to invent a preposterous kind of human shield. He dashes behind Popkiss to escape the ranting German, then uses his petrified chum's arms, like a rod puppet, to start a boxing match. Look out, too, for the cameo by a furiously snarling mutt: just a blur of fur outside the window, ravaging the geraniums.
From this silly romp we bound away to the tempestuous romance of Wuthering Heights, turned into a Bolly- wood-tinged musical by the British-Asian troupe, Tamasha.
It must be said, Kristine Landon-Smith's touring production has its risibly cheesy moments as Heathcliff and Cathy – renamed Krishan and Shakuntala – lipsynch to pre-recorded songs. Burning ardour loses all conviction when your hero and heroine are visibly just mouthing along. And there is more unwitting bathos in Felix Cross's lyrics. "She walks across the sand, like she's floating on air," croons the smitten Vijay – Krishan's wealthy rival – even as Youkti Patel's Shakuntala hobbles out of a wheelchair, recovering from a gunshot wound to the calf. I know love is blind, but this is ridiculous.
That said, adaptor Deepak Verma's concept, translating Emily Brontë's 1840s tale from the Yorkshire moors to the desert landscape of Rajasthan, is seductive. The ensemble spin in beautiful scarlet turbans and green saris on the zigzagging slopes of a golden dune (design by Sue Mayes). The Indian setting, moreover, enriches the tragedy, as the caste system proves a devastating barrier between the ragged Krishan and his socially superior childhood sweetheart.
A couple of the songs, jointly composed by Cross, Sheema Mukherjee and Chandru of Bollywood Strings, prove haunting, too, with echoing ululations, a husky bamboo flute and pulsing tablas.
Last, but definitely not least, the Tricycle in Kilburn is presenting a terrifically ambitious political epic. The Great Game charts the war-torn saga of Afghanistan from the mid-19th century to the present day, focusing on ill-conceived British, Russian and American interventions in this strategically vital yet hostile land. You could see this is the Tric's answer to the RSC's Histories cycle. Divided into three parts, an entire day of specially commissioned plays has been amassed here. They're by an impressive line-up of 14 writers, ranging from the Nato adviser Siba Shakib to the polemicist Richard Bean, from the avant-gardist David Greig to the docu-dramatist Richard Norton-Taylor.
Of course not every contribution is theatrically great. A few lapse into clumsy expositions. Bean's short piece about riled Western aid workers feels a tad underdeveloped, and it's a shame there isn't even one Afghan writer.
But Stephen Jeffreys' opener, Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad, is superbly eloquent and chilling. Four Redcoats stare grimly from the ramparts in the bitter January of 1842, scanning the horizon for survivors from the ill-equipped British retreat from Kabul. One man made it, out of 16,000. In another corner, a ghostly-pale Jemma Redgrave plays the historic Lady Sale: a general's wife who was held hostage and kept a quietly appalled witness-diary of the carnage.
Durand's Line, by Ron Hutchinson, is also insightful and sharply satirical about Victorian imperialists' mix of bullish pragmatism and naïve dreams, presumptuously drawing whatever cartographic borders they fancied across others' terrain. Paul Bhattacharjee is particularly brilliant here, as the compromised Amir of Afghanistan: a sophisticated local leader, responding to the British foreign minister's folly with wry sarcasm, warning of future trouble but swept aside.
All in all, it's an illuminating mara-thon. With Jack Bradley as the project's literary adviser, the individual pieces are cleverly laced with tiny recurrent echoes: we witness history repeating itself. Offbeat but crucial incidents and misunderstandings are scrutinised with close-up intensity, while the over-arching political developments are remarkably lucid. Fascinating for anyone wanting to understand the background to today's on-going bloodbath.
'Rookery Nook' (020-7907 7060) to 20 Jun; 'Wuthering Heights' (0871 221 1722) to 23 May; 'The Great Game: Afghan-istan' (020-7328 1000) to 14 Jun
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