Young Vic, London

Theatre review: Public Enemy - Every good town needs its scapegoat


Ibsen's updated 'An Enemy of the People' is neatly transported to the Sixties but doesn't quite go with a swing

In the popular imagination, clean living and Scandinavia are firmly associated. The former goes with the latter's terrain, the snow-capped peaks, the mountain lakes. In the 1980s, Norway was memorably outraged by the acid rain blowing over from dirty, industrial Britain.

Yet Henrik Ibsen's provocative 1880s play An Enemy of the People presents pollution as a festering internal affair. In Richard Jones's retitled Young Vic revival, Public Enemy, Nick Fletcher's energetically driven Dr Thomas Stockmann is the chief medical officer in a Nordic spa town run by his sibling. Darrell D'Silva's Peter is the seedy mayor and chairman of the baths – a newly developed tourist attraction set to boost the local economy. Dr Stockmann, however, has just discovered that the waters are toxic, contaminated by a tannery. He fancies he'll be lionised for averting a health scandal. But his brother shamelessly seeks a whitewash, to avoid financial ruin. The townsfolk, in turn, attack the whistleblower.

Jones's production translates the action to the 1960s, with some touches of right now. The doctor's family home is a Nordic chalet with pine cladding and trendy furnishings – orange wallpaper, turquoise upholstery (design by Miriam Buether). The update is a snug fit, assisted by David Harrower's new English adaptation. Joel Fry's Billing, a radical journalist affecting a Bob Marley look in a red woolly hat, even slips in a verse from the Beatles' "Revolution". That's before he and his editor corruptly seek to profit from insider trading. D'Silva warns of costs to be borne by the taxpayer, while Fletcher decries populist politicians and the press for cynically ignoring the experts and encouraging mindless materialism.

Many a play is spoiled by speechifying, but Fletcher's climactic public tirade – here addressed directly to the audience – is gripping and trenchant, firing this production up at last. Before that, it falls prey to wooden acting, especially among supporting roles. Plot twists are left over-exposed, with little sense of real family relationships or complex motivation. Some moments of anti-naturalism are patently deliberate, but others look risibly awkward, such as when the cast suddenly rush to one side of Thomas's living room for another lecture or a face-off is staged nose-to-nose.

In London Wall (St James Theatre, London ****), a minor forgotten gem from 1931, Mr Walker (David Whitworth), as the boss of a City law firm, is determined to avoid impropriety in the workplace. Yet his second-in-command, Alex Robertson's Brewer, is a womanising rotter, avidly targeting the naive new secretary. Maia Alexander's Pat lives in rented digs on a lousy wage, and is tempted by Brewer's good looks, his flattery and his offer of theatre tickets – the devil!

This serio-comedy is by John Van Druten (better known for I Am a Camera) and is revived, in period costume, by up-and-coming director Tricia Thorns, whose enjoyable and sometimes tense production justifies its transfer from the Finborough to the St James Theatre (near St James's Park). Some of Van Druten's gallery of characters verge on caricature, especially Marty Cruickshank's Miss Willesden, an eccentric old bird who resembles a panto dame.

Essentially, though, this office drama depicts the exploitation of women – and the spirit of sisterhood – with quite a few shades of grey. Sweet but capable of snapping, Alexander is a name to watch and Robertson's debonair coerciveness can make you flinch. His Brewer is like a cross between Douglas Fairbanks and the fox in Jemima Puddleduck. Worth catching.

In These Shining Lives (Park Theatre, London ****), we're in 1920s Illinois and Catherine (Charity Wakefield) and her fellow factory girls can't believe their lucky stars, painting luminous watch faces for decent wages. What the firm (based on the real-life US Radium Corporation) keeps dark is that the glowing radium they use is lethal. By 1931, Catherine is dying from bone cancer, and fighting to get United States labour law changed.

Workforce plays are notably resurgent, and the Park Theatre, in north London, has chosen this one, penned in 2008 by America's Melanie Marnich, for its inaugural production. A new-build, resourcefully erected without state funding, this venue has deliberate rough edges, with scarred brick and plywood walls. It houses a welcoming bar and a studio, as well as the main auditorium, with a Donmar-like thrust stage.

On press night, a few lighting cues were murky in Loveday Ingrams's production, and Marnich's writing has some slushy patches. Nevertheless, Honeysuckle Weeks is wryly hard-boiled as Catherine's pal, while Wakefield and Alec Newman, as her husband, become heartbreaking.

Lastly, I should mention I'll be at Norwich Playhouse this Saturday, tweeting from 1.30pm to 1.30am. Search for Kate Bassett @tabs12345. That's to cover Life and Times, Parts 1-5, an acclaimed New York epic that recounts one person's life story every which way.

'Public Enemy' (020-7922 2922) to 8 Jun; 'London Wall' (0844 264 2140) to 1 Jun; 'These Shining Lives' (020-7870 6876) to 9 Jun

Critic's Choice

Brought low by Rory Kinnear's Iago, Adrian Lester (both above) is the jealousy-infected army commander in Nicholas Hytner's modern-dress, sometimes ferociously violent Othello at London's National Theatre (to 18 Aug). Bristol's adventurous Mayfest runs to this Sunday, including an award-winning, thrashing, bashing song-play from New York, Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage (Sunday), and Trash Cuisine (Fri-Sat) by the brave and persecuted Belarus Free Theatre.

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