Tales from the Vienna Woods, NT Olivier, London<br></br>Serjeant Musgrave's Dance, Greenwich, London<br></br>Stealing Sweets and Punching People, Latchmere, London<br></br>Airsick, Bush, London

Something's a bit hit and miss in the woods
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The Independent Culture

A vintage postcard of an Alpine scene is pinned, high up, on the far wall. It is greatly magnified as if offering an actual view of the mountains, though it pictures a heavily tinted green valley where a chalet snuggles under an azure sky. We are also greeted, in Richard Jones's production of Tales from the Vienna Woods, by a brass band and small crowd of Tyrolean locals in traditional gear - lederhosen and long socks - all swaying to the musicians' nostalgic harmonies. Yet this realm is, in fact, overwhelmingly gloomy: a cavernous black void where everybody is caught in low, washed-out rays of light. Downstage right looms another enlarged postcard showing us the silhouette of a castle in the forested Wachau district. We gather that Alfred, who is a mercenary young cad, was reared at the foot of this grand ruin by his ambitious peasant mother, and now he's become a roving buck and gambler amongst Vienna's bourgeois shopkeepers.

Written in 1931 during the Depression and rise of Hitler, Odön von Horváth's extraordinary, bleak and prescient tragedy was named - with irony - after one of Johann Strauss's sugary tunes. Other waltzes and "golden oldie" tavern songs weave through the playwright's short scenes, which point to moral hypocrisies, decadence, and potential political horrors. You might compare it to pre-revolutionary Chekhov, only Horváth's Viennese vision is more tarnished and twisted, an anti-romance, a social comedy that becomes disillusioned and very dark indeed. Not only does Alfred (Joe Duttine) exploit the ageing, tarty tobacconist Valerie (Frances Barber), but as various neighbours abandon themselves to lusty frolics by the Danube, Valerie carelessly seduces Erich, a young Nazi. Meanwhile the naive shop girl Marianne, having fallen wildly in love with Alfred, is dragged down into destitution and loses her child, and ends in unbearable despair. This play is, in many ways, intensely modern, shot through with satirically droll and poignant naturalistic details.

That said, Jones's production is peculiarly hit and miss. It is exhilarating to see a bold, spare, avant-garde set with a continental feel in the Olivier. As a designer-cum-director, Jones creates haunting images on an operatic scale, building up a kind of open-plan symphony of small lives. There are droll bits of invention too, not least dive-bombing swimmers vanishing, with synchronised sploshes, into the stage pit. The emotional impact at other points is devastating. Barber's screaming grief, when she sees what has happened to Marianne, is raw and shocking. David Harrower's new translation - though not that different from Christopher Hampton's - has some vibrant mouthiness, while Nicola Walker's sallow but passionately burning Marianne is superb.

Unfortunately, the cast is uneven and Duttine's Alfred is a thorough bore, hollering every line. Generally, the grand echoing space drains the production of vitality. It often feels drab, rushed and too obviously sinister, with Jones relying on stylish visuals without fine-tuning human interactions. Disappointing.

If Erich and his rifle-wielding Nazis pals imagine military discipline and expansionism will stop the rot, they might change their minds after seeing Serjeant Musgrave's Dance. John Arden's war-condemning modern classic was written in the late 1950s when the British empire was crumbling; the Oxford Stage Company's current revival is pertinent enough given the recent invasion and ongoing skirmishes in Iraq. Arden sets his action during the 19th century in the north of England. Musgrave and his three privates are red coats who materialise in a mining town in mysterious circumstances. We gather they have been fighting rebellious natives in some colonial protectorate and they now find themselves facing belligerent striking colliers. The mine-owning mayor presumes that Musgrave is recruiting and will obligingly strip the town of its troublemakers. However, the Serjeant and his band are actually traumatised and AWOL.

Arden's play is, until its final act, sturdy and startling. The chat and the quarrels are earthy with a kind of vigorous colloquial poetry. Sometimes, stepping through the fourth wall, the characters launch into cynical folk songs and popular rhymes, which is slightly awkward but bold - something like Brecht's alienation techniques combined with the Opies' collections of oral folk culture. This touring production is staged by Sean Holmes with fluidity and drive. His sure-footed ensemble is led by Edward Peel as the fevered Musgrave. Maxine Peake is outstanding as Annie, the ferociously grieved barmaid, and Billy Carter as Private Sparky has neurotic vulnerability. A shame, then, that the climax is such a let-down, with Musgrave's exposure of the inglorious truth about war feeling didactic and garbled.

The other two premieres this week reveal a wealth of talent on the London fringe. Stealing Sweets and Punching People is a sharp, unnerving portrait of a messed-up adolescent called Emily. Her father Mick is fiercely protective and she tells alarming stories about his possibly abusive behaviour. She is also desperate to get herself a boyfriend and has a brief, nervous romance with a student called Ben.

What's unsettling is the ambiguity of Phil Porter's script, sensitively directed by Crispin Bonham Carter. You can never be quite sure if Emily is exaggerating, lying or fantasising. At points, she just seems an amusingly stroppy and socially inept teenager, and Porter's dialogue can be delightfully quirky. Yet newcomer Mariah Gale, playing Emily, flicks alarmingly between comical eagerness and cold vicious fury. By the end, this is a disturbing study of the fine line between acute teenage confusion and fully-fledged mental illness. James Duke, as Mike, isn't wholly convincing when he gets heavy, but Simon Bubb as Ben is another name to watch.

Emma Frost's first stage play, Airsick, is also extremely assured, charting the cruel twists of fate that prematurely terminate a thirtysomething Londoner called Lucy. She bumps into a seemingly cute Kiwi backpacker called Gabriel at the airport just when Joe - her supposed Mr Right - is moving from the US to shack up with her. Frost's narrative structuring is almost too neat and the "big themes" - including Lucy's obsession with black holes - are obtrusive. Nevertheless, this drama generates prickly suspense, leaves a potent sour taste in the mouth about sexual callousness, and usually steers clear of the predictable. Like Stealing Sweets..., it is often surprisingly funny as well. Mick Bradwell's cast are excellent, including Celia Robertson as the long-suffering Lucy and Susannah Doyle as her recklessly wanton flatmate, Scarlet. Es Devlin's stage design is quietly ingenious too: a darkened glass cabinet where a TV sitting on Lucy's designer shelving flickers with images of trains and planes to transport you round the world.


'Tales from the Vienna Woods': NT Olivier, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), to 19 Nov; 'Serjeant Musgrave's Dance': touring the UK (Info: 020 7438 9940 or www.oxfordstage.co.uk), to 22 Nov; 'Stealing Sweets and Punching People': Latchmere, London SW11 (020 7978 7040), to 26 Oct; 'Airsick': Bush, London W12 (020 7610 4224), to 8 Nov