Liverpool is looking to 2008 when it will be the EU's chosen Capital of Culture. Top-notch fare is required and the limbering up has begun. The affiliated Liverpool Playhouse and Everyman theatres are currently enjoying a fresh lease of life under their new artistic director, Gemma Bodinetz. Her opening season certainly looks promising with two rarely-seen Noël Coward plays (Still Life and The Astonished Heart) and UK premieres by up-and-coming international writers. That said, The Entertainer seems an odd choice with which to kick off, for John Osborne's 1950s classic depicts the music hall business dying on its feet. The bankrupt showman, Archie Rice, wheezes out his tawdry jokes to ever dwindling audiences while, back at home, he maintains superficial connections with his wife Phoebe, his offspring and his aged father, Billy, who was a star turn but whose heyday is long past.
But as you take your seat in the tatty, battered, vintage auditorium, you can see why this play and the Playhouse could have been made for each other. Ti Green's set design manages to be haunting, too, for the boarding house where the Rices reside is skeletal, represented by free-standing doors, one big old wireless and a few chairs. The acoustic sometimes acquires a ghostly echo as well, and the poverty and hollowness of Archie's theatrical life is suggested by all other decor being stripped away to expose the Playhouse's rear wall of raw bricks and pulleys.
This production additionally boasts Corin Redgrave as Archie, with Paola Dionisotti portraying his cheated spouse. She captures Phoebe's mix of perky chatter and depression, pouring out large gins with restless hands. Leslie Randall's shuffling Billy is an endearingly affectionate oldster, and a precursor of One Foot in the Grave's grumbling Victor Meldrew.
The real problem is that most of John Tiffany's cast are very slow picking up their cues - possibly struggling to remember their lines. The pace may pick up as the run continues, but at present the chronic fatigue that plagues Archie's brand of comedy seems to have spread into Osborne's own writing. His boozy and quarrelsome domestic scenes, instead of being bleak or fraught, come across as meanderingly verbose. Osborne's reputation was recently boosted by the Donmar Warehouse's carefully focused, taut production of his forgotten satire, The Hotel in Amsterdam, whereas Tiffany's direction lets his better-known work look saggy.
One also misses Olivier's legendary performance in the title role. Redgrave has been on top form in recent years, playing various sad and seedy bastards, but he is off the boil here. One might think his own showbiz dynasty would make him apt casting, yet his moustachioed, grey-suited Archie - albeit latently vulnerable - fails to capture the character's shockingly callous side and ingrained theatricality. Little sense of professional desperation crosses the footlights, though it surely should. When he steps forward to launch into his comic routine - rigged out in schoolboy shorts or a jaunty boater - his gag-telling and little jigs are so technically wan you can't believe his talented father ever put him on the stage. It is the political subplot which, nearly half a century on, feels remarkably pertinent. It may be the Suez Crisis that we hear reported on the wireless and Eden who ends up resigning as PM, but one can hardly miss the topicality of Phoebe trusting that her son Mick will be looked after by the British army, only for him to come back in a body bag.
In Journey's End, we are in the trenches of the First World War, holed up in a dugout near St Quentin just before the last major German offensive of March 1918. Written in 1928, R C Sherriff's classic about the officers and lieutenants of a doomed brigade might sound like an old warhorse, but this is actually a searing portrait of troops going to the slaughter. Those running the military campaign blithely order Captain Stanhope's men to go on a raid before they are ready, just because the hour is convenient for those at HQ. Sherriff's play is, of course, a period piece, paying tribute to British chaps who maintained a stiff upper lip. However, Sherriff's dialogue has dated astonishingly little - being scattered with only a few arcane exclamations of "topping" or "cheero" - and his portrait of the stress and fear endured is intensely poignant. David Grindley's revival, where everyone lives in a pool of muddy water under a corrugated iron roof, is compelling, with naturalistic, pin-sharp acting and slowly mounting tensions.
This is one hell of a company with every actor pulling his weight, from Phil Cornwell as the comically lousy cook to Geoffrey Streatfeild as the shattered, dangerously explosive Stanhope. Christian Coulson is an outstanding newcomer, playing the naive second lieutenant Raphael who hero-worshipped Stanhope at school. He could be the next Jude Law, while David Haig is a superb, mature tower of strength as the rock-steady yet quietly suffering Lieutenant Osborne. Old-school it may be, but this is a richly humane and almost unbearably tragic portrait of decimated lives. Someone in Downing Street should make Tony Blair and Geoff Hoon walk a couple of blocks and watch this.
Regrettably, Southwark Playhouse's new regime, under artistic director Gareth Machin, has got off to a poor start with Romeo and Juliet. Tom Wilson's production is painful viewing in all the wrong ways. The rival gangs of Montagues and Capulets hang around looking self-consciously naff in drab T-shirts and trainers, waving archaic daggers at one another. Nick Barber's Mercutio appears to have modelled himself on Freddy Mercury, strutting about with lashings of eyeliner. Ronny Jhutti's pretty Romeo gabbles his pentameters, leaving Penny Layden's Juliet single-handedly trying to save the show. Her impassioned, girlishly impatient monologues shine out, but in this hacked-down version, the ill-starred lovers are dead before you can say Jack Robinson, then everyone jumps up from the tomb and choruses, "Praise be to the Lord!" Is this some kind of born-again Christian joke?
'The Entertainer': Playhouse, Liverpool (0151 709 4776), to 7 Feb; 'Journey's End': Comedy, London SW1 (020 7369 1731), to 6 March; 'Romeo and Juliet': Southwark Playhouse, London SE1 (020 7620 3494), to SatReuse content