The Woman Hater, Orange Tree, Richmond, Surrey<br />The Young Ones, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London<br />The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Warehouse, Croydon

Three historical plays show the many ways the passing years have left their mark
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The Independent Culture

Two hundred years on the shelf, and The Woman Hater sounds fresh as a daisy. Fanny Burney's comedy of parted lovers, literary pretensions and scheming servants lay unperformed since 1802 until Sam Walters dusted it off for this production full of charm and vivacity, not to mention impertinence. This last quality is exemplified by young Miss Wilmot, who finds her book-loving father "dismal dull", preferring riding, romping and running. Since this is the early 19th century, and Miss Wilmot is at least nominally a young lady, she keeps her opinion from her father, but speaks her mind elsewhere, provoking from the stately Lady Smatter the contemporary equivalent of "Get stuffed": "I'm extremely obliged to you for favouring me with your advice."

The title character, Sir Roderick, who was jilted two decades ago and has been sulking ever since, is less prominent than the studious Mr Wilmot, whose wife who absconded 15 years ago has suddenly turned up. Joan Moon as the wife and Amy Noble as her other daughter supply plenty of feminine grace, and Michael Elwyn's Mr Wilmot strikes a nice balance between the pain of the story and its rippling rhetoric, whether exclaiming: "O heinous precipitance of iniquitous jealousy!" or, more tersely, telling his heart: "Throb not."

The play would be better if it were 20 minutes shorter, if the quotation-scattering Lady Smatter were more outrageous, and if the exposition did not hit you like a rock slide. It is also a bit too earnest, a fault the production matches with such twee touches as a hoyden who strips off her Regency dress to reveal T-shirt and jeans, and Clive Francis's desiccated hi-jinks as Sir Roderick, all mechanical knee-slapping and rictus grin. The dizzy atmosphere of mutual misunderstanding, however, and the sprightliness of the acting including Jennifer Higham's fractious philistine and David Gooderson's old boy who thinks he's struck lucky with the ladies provide plenty of fun. One of the plot problems is resolved with a device that illustrates, with as much conviction as the Aryan Nations, the idea that blood will tell. This comical but, to us, deeply unpalatable stroke may explain why The Woman Hater will probably remain of more interest to social historians than theatrical entrepreneurs.

With a bent for self-destruction that approaches the kamikaze, The Young Ones begins each act by playing American hits of the late 1950s, reminding us that they were roughly 50,000 times better than the tripe Cliff Richard sang, even if they inspired it. (Am I the first to think the title tune is a near-inversion of "Dream Lover"?) Yet obliviousness to reality is the nature of this piece, adapted by John Plews from the 1961 movie, its plot apparently concocted by a child with no sense of shame ("Let's put on a show!" "Oh, yes! Look, here's a theatre and here are some sets and costumes!"), its songs meant to reassure parents that teenagers had nothing between their ears or their legs.

Such, however, is the good cheer whipped up by Racky Plews's production that the evening passes in a blur of amiable sweetness, although none of the voices is stellar and the girls behave with an imbecility that is as tedious as it is frenetic. The reason lies with the smoothly effective band led by Dominic Carter and with a strong and endearing male cast. Kristopher Milnes's clowning is impish and gutsy, and Richard Foster-King throws himself into the part of a horse-faced hooray with all four legs. Jason Langley's droll manner and Pierrot face seem at first to be at odds with the lead role, he soon wins us over with his quiet, Denis Lawson-y charm.

Respect for the nature of material and milieu is in short supply at The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Stefan Bednarczyk compres with a voice like hair oil, and the other ingredients a midnight murder (or is it?), an opium den seem to promise, in Ted Craig's production, an agreeably creepy time. The basis for Rupert Holmes's musical, however, is not a horror movie but a novel by Dickens. Dismal and wooden, his last work is a disturbing example of his literary and mental disintegration, and a strange basis for a melodrama with music-hall interludes and self-parodying jokes. Dickens was, above all, sincere; he was passionate. Watching this silly send-up and its oafish cast, one is confronted with the difference between his era and one that believes nothing deserves to be taken seriously.

'The Woman Hater', Orange Tree, Richmond, Surrey (020-8940 3633) to 2 February; 'The Young Ones', Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London N6 (020-8340 3488) to 27 January; 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood', Warehouse, Croydon (020-8680 4060) to 24 February.

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