The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, Royal Court Downstairs, London<br></br>Follow My Leader, Rep, Birmingham<br></br>Electricity, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Mad? Or just swinging the lead?
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'But it's a glowing review," says Dr Gilbert. She even lists the journalist's admiring adjectives before remarking: "There's only one sentence that's not completely complimentary... 'There are some weak spots... But these are hardly worth mentioning.'" Dr Gilbert is Dana's therapist. Dana is an artist, and her response to the article about her painting is: "Bitch... If it's hardly worth mentioning, why bring it up?"

Rebecca Gilman's new play, The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, is a fierce challenge to newspaper critics and, indeed, to anyone who might comment on another person's creative work. Talk about walking on eggshells. The aforementioned cavils have made Dana (superbly played by Gillian Anderson) obsessively gloomy. Her boyfriend leaves her, she suffers a cool response to her new exhibition and dismissive comments from her avaricious dealer, Rhonda (Nancy Crane). She then cuts her wrists and is placed in a mental hospital, under the more caring, though not wholly protective eye of Gilbert (Crane, doubling).

Gilman's piece strongly implies that for "painter", we could read "playwright". Firstly, Dana develops some kind of alternative personality disorder, taking on the identity of a once-celebrated baseball player named Darryl. A fellow-patient points out that you need only "translate it out of the baseball" to understand it's her talking about herself incognito. Secondly, in a sudden twist, the action turns outwards to take a swipe at the audience as a crowd of unwanted appraisers. On press night, you could almost hear the critics gulping, swallowing a dose of their own medicine or nervously weighing up the job in hand.

It probably is worth mentioning a couple of weak spots where Gilman unnecessarily spells out analytic points. But this is a highly intelligent play, and one senses a robustness in Gilman's satirical humour and implicit self-criticism. The games played with pretend personae are also richly fascinating, Pirandellian and Shakespearean, with the swaggering Darryl being a liberating alter ego as well as a shield. At the same time, the dialogue has a spare simplicity, which the excellent director Ian Rickson fully appreciates.

Hildegard Bechtler's set is a bare artist's studio, where huge white canvases lean against walls, some with their backs to us. The acting is also beautifully understated, with a delicate balance maintained between comedy and grief. On one level, Darryll is the play's central joke. Dana is faking madness to stay in hospital for free, and clearly she's clueless about sport. But the pretence is rooted in genuine fear, and Anderson looks as if she is desperately fighting back tears. It's an extraordinarily double performance - simultaneously entertaining and tragic. One of the best productions of the year to date.

Meanwhile, Birmingham Rep has suddenly become a hot-bed of political theatre. Last month, it played host to Continental Divide, David Edgar's double whammy about American electioneering. Now it's staging Follow My Leader, a new musical satire about Bush'n'Blair's War On Terror, with book and lyrics by Alistair Beaton (of Spitting Image fame). The set looks like a music hall crossed with a televised press conference. Its proscenium arch is swathed in a Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes, while its walls are giant screens, flashing up news footage and strategic maps.

Essentially, this is a pacifist's potted history of B&B's recent joint crusade, with a heavily ironic emphasis on their shared Christian faith. They duet: "We're sending you a cluster bomb from Jesus." The narrative frame is that God detests Bush's aggressive policies, and elects Blair to save the day, but Tony sanctimoniously convinces himself he can do no wrong while towing the Pentagon line.

Jason Durr's impersonation of our PM, though limited, is corrosive. The hands - held out like a fence while motioning towards an open-palmed gesture - are defensive and pseudo-Messianic. Other high points in Beaton's string of sketches include inversions of Middle Eastern and Western scenarios. Thus Arabic TV reports that doubles are probably standing in for Mr Blair who is rumoured to be dead or hiding under a bed in one of his wife's apartments in Bristol. Composer Richard Blackford's old-school vaudeville and jazz tunes are sardonically perky, not least in the waltzing number, "Pre-emptive Defence" ("A passing pedestrian's wearing a frown/ To be on the safe side you gun the guy down").

That said, The Madness of George Dubya got in there first, and Beaton's material is hit and miss. Moreover, the portrayal of Osama Bin Laden and his cronies as harmless cartoon baddies makes you doubt Beaton's judgement, especially when Mark Clemens' production is underpowered. The crescendo to a grotesque apocalypse is not convincing, however much you feel a sense of doom out in the real world.

Like Blackford, Murray Gold is an award-winning composer of film scores and theme tunes (Queer As Folk etc). Sadly, this doesn't mean he's a dab-hand at scriptwriting. Getting some builders in, as characters, is often the making of a sparky play. However, Gold's cranky comedy, Electricity, is structurally unsound, even with future Dr Who Christopher Eccleston on board. Director Ian Brown does his best with the material, in which neurotic middle-class homeowner, Katherine (Sophie Ward), is driven up the wall by Eccleston's Jakey. His impersonation of a loafing builder is uncannily accurate, while Andrew Scarborough, as Katherine's pushy fiancé, offers comic menace. But whatever this play is trying to say about impotence and opening up, the dialogue just goes round in circles.

'The Sweetest Swing in Baseball': Royal Court, London SW1 (020 7565 5050), to 15 May; 'Follow My Leader': Birmingham Rep (0121 236 4455 ), to Sat, then Hampstead, London NW3 (020 7722 9301), 21 April to 15 May; 'Electricity': West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113 213 7700), to 24 April

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

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