The Night Season, NT Cottesloe, London <br></br> The Master and Margarita, Festival Theatre, Chichester <br></br>Carnesky's Ghost Train, Old Truman Brewery, London

Sisters, sots and senility in Sligo
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The Independent Culture

Look out for the name Rebecca Lenkiewicz. It's once in a blue moon that a writer gets her second-ever play staged at the National. It's even more remarkable when you wander away at the end, walking on air. The location of The Night Season is Sligo, where a senile old lady called Lily (Annette Crosbie) is being cared for by her three granddaughters. Their boozy dad, Patrick (David Bradley), is obsessed with the local barmaid. They are all frustrated, yearn for true lovers, and talk of going to London. Meanwhile, a film is being made in town and the handsome English star, John, comes to lodge in their cottage, leading to painful love triangles.

This inevitably calls to mind Marie Jones's Stones in their Pockets, Martin McDonagh's portraits of backwater Ireland, and Chekhov's Three Sisters. The youngest sibling, Maud, even has a Communist boyfriend who hankers for Moscow. The interspersed vintage love songs and Yeats's poems are rather too obvious comments on the action, and two or three early plot developments feel forced.

Yet gradually you realise that Lenkiewicz is quite extraordinarily talented, and that Lucy Bailey's cast are wonderful. Dick Bird's set design is electrifying when the drunken Patrick is seen shouting in his sleep on a vertical bed, as if we've spun up on to the ceiling. And given time, the narrative developments attain an easy pace with scattered, startling twists. More importantly, the switches between intense sexual attraction, acute grief and comedy are bewitching and beautifully worked. Somehow this never feels formulaic, but just like life.

Steering away from pure sentimentality, Crosbie's Lily is sweetly cranky and sporadically bitter. Bradley is hilariously scraggy, offering his guest a breakfast whisky with the aperçu: "I find the first is the sweetest before fluoride and domestic worries set in." His pissed-as-newts scene with Susan Lynch's Judith - his hitherto uptight eldest daughter - is a joy, and Lloyd Hutchinson is rock-solid and quietly pained as her long-suffering ex. John Light, playing the square-jawed actor John, manages to satirise his own profession, be genuinely tender and a cad, while Justine Mitchell's Rose is achingly funny and sad. Catch this.

Dreams and reality, art and life all blur unnervingly in Steven Pimlott's fluid staging of The Master and Margarita - Bulgakov's celebrated part-allegorical, part-autobiographical saga about a nonconformist writer, Communist Russia and predatory devils. Edward Kemp's new adaptation is inspired. Instead of a-novel-within-a-novel we have a politically dangerous play-within-a-play, which is fitting since Bulgakov was a Moscow Art Theatre dramatist denounced by Stalin.

Samuel West is first seen dressed like Jesus, being interrogated by David Killick's crusty Pontius Pilate. Then West steps out of the frame and shouts a comment into the stalls. He's the pushy, obsessed playwright (the Master) playing the lead in a rehearsal of his own script. In a teasing bit of casting, the potentially treacherous Director Of The Theatre, yelling back from the aisle, is played by Martin Duncan (Pimlott's fellow-AD at Chichester).

A strong blend of politics and romance is swiftly established, as West leaves the rehearsal and suddenly finds himself in bed with an irresistible stranger - Clare Holman's Margarita. Though their performances are always fractionally self-conscious, he is intense and intelligent and she is surprisingly droll and feisty. Nightmarish realities and fantasies become increasingly richly overlaid as the Master's play is banned, he fetches up in an asylum, and both his supporters and his enemies go to the devil.

The central, epic scene of dancing ghouls is, frankly, a prolix gothic bore and the supposedly satanic cat, Behemoth, is about as scary as Puss in Boots. However, Michael Feast's evil Professor is fabulously snaky, hammy and hair-raising, snooping around park benches with a wheedling smile, one white eye and steel teeth.

Anyone reading the press previews will have gleaned that Carnesky's Ghost Train is an admirably ambitious project that has suffered months of delays. The frightful state of our railways, eh. The creative team is certainly promising. This experimental fairground ride was conceived by Marisa Carnesky, an Olivier Award-winning performance artist (who collaborated on the cabaret hit, C'est Barbican). Her illusionist is Paul Kieve (credited in the latest Harry Potter film), and one of the project's associate directors is David Rosenberg of Shunt (soon to be working in association with the NT).

Intriguingly, too, the big idea is that this ghost train tells the story of migrant women. Carnesky's own great-grandmother came to London's east-end, escaping Latvia's pogroms. Carnesky herself has worked as a Shoreditch stripper, and this co-devised piece is said to reflect the contemporary experiences of her multinational, female cast of dancers and alternative artistes. Alas, it turns out Carnesky has no great train of thought. The ride is almost insultingly reductive.

It offers a few technical thrills. You lurch in the dark on a twisting track. Eerie trompe l'oeils include ghost-doves fluttering behind bars and dancing girls vanishing into thin air. But most of the side-shows are a dull medley of gothic and soft-porn clichés (shrieks, fishnets and handcuffs). Anyone would think we were in the London Borough of Hackneyed. Most worryingly, the vignettes send out a negative message suggesting no one ever gets out of the ghetto or the sex industry except by dying. The whole thing only lasts 10 minutes but, after five, I just wanted to call it a day. Does the Passengers' Charter stretch to refunds for chronic disappointment?

'The Night Season': NT Cottesloe, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), to 17 Nov; 'The Master and Margarita': Festival Theatre, Chichester (01243 781312), to 23 Sept; 'Carnesky's Ghost Train': Old Truman Brewery, London E1 (020 7053 2000), to 23 Sept

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

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