The Portrait of a Lady, Theatre Royal, Bath
Nocturne, Almeida, London
Wink the Other Eye, Wilton's Music Hall, London

A back-to-front narrative should never come to halt – but a disappointing evening of vaudeville should

Has someone confused Henry James with Leonardo da Vinci? This is The Portrait of a Lady – the novelist's 1881 masterpiece about Americans on the Grand Tour – but it's as if Nicki Frei's new adaptation has been penned in mirror writing.

That is to say, Peter Hall's production – part of his Bath rep season – moves backwards through the story. So, we start with the heiress Isabel (Catherine McCormack) wretched in Rome, stuck in her unwise marriage to the gold-digger Osmond (Finbar Lynch). Next we witness him as her suitor, posing as a pure aesthete. Then she is seen crossing paths with other admirers as we jump-cut back to the day she first arrived in England, determined to be an independent young woman.

I don't mind the inverse story-telling, though Pinter's Betrayal does it better. As one watches McCormack in rewind, becoming more happily girlish, it is akin to remembering things past. It generates a sense of mild nostalgia for lost innocence. The really chronic problem is that, within each scene, the clock appears to be merely winding down. The pace of line-delivery slows to a crawl as Lynch and Niamh Cusack (playing his intimate, Madame Merle) over-egg their scheming pauses and Machiavellian smiles. It is astounding that Isabel can note the fine brushwork in Osmond's art collection when she seems blind to such villainously unsubtle acting.

Generally, the cast appear stiff – perhaps under-rehearsed – though Susie Trayling is amusingly energetic as Isabel's pushy companion, Henrietta Stackpole. Now and then, everybody grinds to a complete halt, striking tableaux. Though the period costumes are very fine – ruched silks and velvets – Miss Archer's continental travels appear to be dismally confined to one black marble cloister. Dull video projections of Roman and Florentine rooftops – with the odd wheeling bird – do nothing to animate the proceedings.

If James envisaged Isabel going to "affront her destiny" in Europe, what was the tomboyish kid-sister of Nocturne's narrator doing when she stepped out of their front garden in Illinois, straight under the wheels of his Buick Electra? He wonders if it was chance, "God's ugly deck of cards", or if she harboured some death wish, foreseeing a stultifying life of suburban marital tedium.

Written by Adam Rapp and beautifully performed by Peter McDonald, this is a monologue which replays the fatal accident in obsessive detail. In this case, the slow-motion effect is gripping. With indirect allusions to Greek tragedy, the narrator then proceeds to chart the repercussions down the next 15 years, including the mental disintegration of his staid parents.

Rapp is most definitely talented. His descriptions are often unforgettably vivid. When the narrator's father points a gun in his face, he describes its muzzle, "the hole like a little iron nostril", and then the feel of the cylinder in his mouth, "like kissing the engine of a toy train".

However, this writer doesn't know when to stop: something of an irony given the Buick's failing brakes. Obsession becomes tedious when he indulges in strings of similes and Thesaurus-style synonyms. Maybe Nocturne ultimately feels prolix because it is really a short story masquerading as a theatre piece.

McDonald's performance is superbly understated, casual in a plaid shirt but with simmering bitterness. Would that Matt Wilde's staging trusted in simplicity. Nocturne is part of the Almeida's music theatre season, but the interludes of melancholy piano chords (composed by Phillip Neil Martin) feel intrusive, as do the bouts of pseudo-arty video projection.

From multimedia, we travel back to old-school music hall. Tucked down an alley in the East End of London, Wilton's is the world's last surviving grand music hall: a beautifully crumbling vaulted chamber with gilded barley-twist columns. You can almost see the flitting ghosts. And Wink the Other Eye promises to whirl you back to Wilton's heyday when the reeling comedian Champagne Charlie was making his name here, the stage was awash with high-kicking bloomers and 1,500 locals regularly crammed in to sing along.

But, oh, what a woeful disappointment this divertissement is, ineffectually written and directed by Angus Barr (formerly of Ridiculusmus). His struggling ensemble doesn't have nearly enough rumbustious brio, and as for daredevil acrobatics – no one can do more than a backbend. As I stumbled away at the end– having endured 30 unbelievably unfunny songs – I could only wonder why this witless stuff wasn't knocked on the head in the 1850s, never to be reprised.



'The Portrait of a Lady' (01225 448844) to 9 Aug, then touring; 'Nocturne' transfers to the Traverse, Edinburgh (0131-228 1404) 31 Jul-10 Aug; 'Wink the Other Eye' (020-7702 2789) to 16 Aug

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate