With its string of West End and Broadway transfers, the Menier is a remarkable fringe success story.
A converted Victorian factory in Southwark, all timber beams and old brick, it contrives to be both homely and top-notch, usually excelling at comic musicals and Christmas shows. I said usually. For in spite of an illustrious cast that includes Maria Friedman, this year's festive romp isn't a blinder. Directed by Ian Talbot, The Invisible Man is Ken Hill's 1990s knockabout version of the 1890s thriller by HG Wells, in which a twisted scientific genius, named Griffin, has rendered himself transparent.
John Gordon Sinclair's Griffin bizarrely fetches up in a Sussex backwater, his head encased in bandages, dark glasses and a fedora, as if someone mummified one of the Blues Brothers. Irascible and power-crazed, he snarls at the villagers, burgles the vicarage, then launches a dastardly terror campaign aimed at world domination. Neither he nor this revival is destined for greatness, however.
Talbot's cast aren't really to blame. Friedman is bouncy, trilling music-hall ditties and playing the bug-eyed pub landlady, Mrs Hall. Gary Wilmot is perky too, as the tramp conscripted as Griffin's sidekick. The trouble is, while these rustics are meant to be hilarious idiots, Hill's own wit is feeble.
There are some splendidly silly physical tussles. Jo Stone-Fewings's twerpish Squire Burdock sends himself flying, spinning and sprawling as if clobbered by an unseen foe. Natalie Casey is droll, too, as the toddling barmaid, letting out desultory shrieks. Elsewhere, though, the old-school clowning routines look lame. And even if a few of Paul Kieve's visual illusions are wizard, you can too often discern how they are achieved.
Not a must-see, then, but there's bound to be something better at the Menier soon, whether or not its plans for a second auditorium become concrete. Staying with the subject of buildings, there is currently a "no show" situation at the RSC's Swan and new 1,000-seat Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The Stratford-upon-Avon riverside complex reopened to the public this week, its four-year, £12m rebuild completed on budget and on schedule.
In today's financial climate, you might expect artistic director Michael Boyd to get the box office tills ringing immediately. Instead, he's taking things slowly to ensure that the building runs smoothly. Two extant productions (King Lear and Romeo and Juliet) will occupy the new main stage in February. Only later in the spring do things get rolling, Rupert Goold tackling The Merchant of Venice in the RST and, in the Swan, Gregory Doran staging Shakespeare's lost play, Cardenio.
In the meantime, the rebuild is pretty tremendous, a great improvement on the red-brick 1930s edifice known as the Jam Factory. Choice parts of the original have been retained, the rule clearly being "jam yesterday, but preserve today". The Art Deco north facade and foyer look startlingly elegant with their post-Thirties add-ons stripped away. A sheet-glass wall and new entrance on the street side make the whole complex more airy and accessible. Maybe the soaring tower looks a bit Gestapo, but it offers a fine viewing platform and rooftop restaurant. As for the auditoria, the beloved Swan has been left alone (simply re-upholstered), while the unloved RST has been transformed from a proscenium to a more engaging thrust stage, with the audience on three sides, as in the try-out, prefab Courtyard Theatre.
One might wonder if having only thrust stages will be artistically limiting. The Other Place will surely need to be redeveloped next as an experimental studio, and Peter Hall, the former RSC boss, has expressed doubts about the RST's particularly long thrust. So, watch this space.
Lamentably, Hall's West End staging of The Rivals – Sheridan's 18th-century comedy of manners – has precious little to recommend it beyond its gorgeous period costumes, in shimmering grey and plum silk. The rebellious and romantic youngsters, Jack Absolute and Lydia Languish, are stupefyingly bland, played by Tam Williams with a fixed grin and Robyn Addison with a flat voice. Peter Bowles and Penelope Keith are slightly more endearing as their marriage-arranging elders, Sir Anthony Absolute and Mrs Malaprop, though the latter's farcical linguistic incompetence is almost eclipsed by the company's lack of textual acumen.
Finally, Kin is very much fledgling fare, penned by the young, little-known EV Crowe and featuring child-actors. Essentially, this is a dark portrait of 10-year-old girls at boarding school: posh, bullying little beasts with flashes of vulnerability and possibly sexual bunk-sharing. The dialogue can be wearing, with its endless obscenities and lines rattled through at piccolo pitch, though the childish non-sequiturs can be funny and unsettling. I also suspect Jeremy Herrin's spartan production – set in a long, grey, institutional chamber with echoing offstage laughter – will stick in the mind.
'Invisible Man' (020-7907 7060) to 13 Feb; 'The Rivals' (0845 481 1870) to 26 Feb; 'Kin' (020-7565 5000) to 23 Dec
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