Six Characters in Search of an Author, Minerva Chichester<br />Free Outgoing, Royal Court Downstairs, London<br />The Frontline, Shakespeare's Globe, London

The 1920s tragicomedy slides easily into the 21st century in this brave staging
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The Independent Culture

Pirandello would, almost certainly, have been hooked on reality TV. He'd have been (excuse my Italian) like a pig in shit watching Big Brother and The Jerry Springer Show, The 1900 House and all those dodgy dramatic "reconstructions" used in today's documentaries. After all, his groundbreaking classic, Six Characters in Search of an Author, was obsessed with the fuzzy line where actuality overlaps with acting a part, where we start to confuse role-playing and real people, constructed storylines and life.

What's extremely bold and smart about director Rupert Goold's radical reworking of this 1921 tragicomedy – co-adapted by Ben Power – is how it spots the connection with contemporary "faction", plays around with that and creates a whole new narrative frame. Thus the mysterious titular Characters don't interrupt a rehearsal in a traditional theatre. They walk into a television studio and demand to be filmed reliving their unresolved dysfunctional family saga.

We find ourselves in an anonymous blue-carpeted office with digital video cameras, spotlights and computer screens. The room is doubling as an editing suite and last-minute recording studio for the stressed Producer (Noma Dumezweni) as she struggles to splice together a documentary drama about voluntary euthanasia.

Watching the rushes, a swanky Executive (subtly satirical John Mackay) isn't convinced she has enough choice footage, and it's when he departs that the six Characters materialise, offering a possibly crazy but tempting alternative story. They have a macabre touch of Grand Guignol about them. Ian McDiarmid is a creepy withered Father, with pursed lips preparing to confess to incestuous lust, chalky-faced as if he has been holed up in a windowless basement, if not the grave. As his bitter and compulsively sluttish Stepdaughter, Denise Gough is also morbidly pallid, swishing around in a bowler hat and fishnets.

This production has its snags. Gough's histrionics are fractionally too much and some spectators will surely find this staging pretentious. Goold and Power also add so many closing twists that the piece turns into A Dozen Endings in Search of an Editor. Yet this is an extraordinary evening. Goold's directorial choices can be breathtakingly brave, not least in his nightmarish brothel scene where everyone's howls turn into a raving opera, and Mackay is reincarnated as a shrieking chimp of a pimp. Pirandello's potentially arid real/pretending games are invested with fierce emotional urgency. And even the excessive twists are Pirandellian and satirically self-reverential too – with lookalikes of Goold and Power popping up in the TV studio and smugly selling their hip concept to the Exec before being hatcheted to death by the maddened Characters. Vengeance is theirs.

Dark spidery fissures are appearing around the door frames in Free Outgoing by the Indian playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar. Set in her conservative hometown of Chennai, this is the first transfer from the studio to the main house in the Royal Court's Upstairs Downstairs season. Presided over by Lolita Chakrabarti's Malini – a prim widowed matriarch – the family flat looks grimly spartan. Yet she has invested in technological gizmos for her teenagers, including a computer. She has particularly high expectations of her daughter Deepa who is – we gather, though we never see her – a model student at school, or has been until now.

Malini's dreams are soon in ruins in this drama about the consequences of a minor transgression in a morally unforgiving society. Technology proves to be Deepa's downfall. Her boyfriend films her bestowing sexual favours and sends the mobile phone footage to a classmate. It is soon on the web and becomes a national scandal, with outraged crowds gathering outside the block of flats.

This play won some high praise when it premiered last year. Perhaps you had to be there – in the studio. The larger auditorium exposes the piece's structural weaknesses. Chakrabarti's central performance is strong, with escalating panic then glazed despair under the media spotlight. Unexpectedly funny and chilling moments arise too. However, the build-up of suspense is mishandled and director Indhu Rubasingham's stiff blocking hardly papers over the cracks.

Lastly, we come to Ché Walker's new musical tragicomedy about lowlifes bumping up against love and death on the grimy streets of Camden Town. A rowdy jostle of rapping junkies, tarts, racist heavies and gospel-singing evangelists, The Frontline is a sprawling mess. But then so is Camden and, premiered at the Globe, Matthew Dunster's production feels like a 21st-century variation on Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair – albeit more sentimental. The show is lively and littered with hilarious and startlingly touching moments. Particularly joyous are Jo Martin's mouthy lap dancer, Violet, and her stroppy daughter (Naana Agyei-Ampadu), Mo Sesay as a shy bouncer and John Stahl as a worldly-wise hot-dog hawker. The authentic touch of pouring rain on press night only added to the spirit of slumming it and resilient celebration.



'Six Characters in Search of an Author' (01243 784437) to 23 Aug; 'Free Outgoing' (020-7565 5000) to 19 Jul; 'The Frontline' (020-7401 9919) to 17 Aug



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