Palladium, London

Theatre review: Shrinks, secrets, and all that jazz in A Chorus Line

3.00

A lacquer of sentimentality coats this reborn Broadway hit, but it's possible – just – to see why it caused such a stir in the 1970s

The man in charge is a monster. In A Chorus Line – the 1970s New York musical about dancers auditioning for a New York musical – the director, Zach, has dictatorial tendencies. We watch him putting hopefuls through their paces so relentlessly that one of them begs for a rest. Another is injured.

John Partridge's Zach is a pseudo-shrink, too, in the Palladium's production which recreates Michael Bennett's Broadway-hit 1975 staging. Having drilled the dancers till they're spinning in synch, Zach whisks Hoff stage. Thereafter he's a disembodied voice, grilling them from the stalls.

Everyone has to fess up to past humiliations, analyse why they dance, ruminate on imminent unemployment. The main twist is that Zach has himself been hurt, by his ex (Scarlett Strallen), who now needs a job.

A Chorus Line caused a stir when it premiered, and you can still, just about, see why. The set is a black chasm, more modern dance than trad musical. The segmented back wall performs a stunning trick with rotating mirrors, such that the dancers gain doppelgängers, gliding behind them. Glitz is saved for the finale.

The experimental script lines up monologues loosely based on interviews with real-life dancers. That said, they lack the verbatim authenticity of the National Theatre's recent documusical, London Road. A lacquer of sentimentality coats proceedings. Nevertheless, you come away appreciating the hard graft and joys of being a hoofer. This ensemble is extremely assured, directed by Bennett's co-choreographer Bob Avian. Strallen conveys desperation with conviction, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt's Diana sassy resilience. Adam Salter tap dances with the jubilance of a bouncing lamb; and James T Lane gets funky, waggling to Marvin Hamlisch's snazzy score.

In Macbeth (Trafalgar Studios, London ****), the issue of disagreeable despots is far more serious, with James McAvoy as Shakespeare's usurping regicide. Director Jamie Lloyd's new season at the Trafalgar Studios promises a volley of similarly politically charged productions.

Macbeth gets off to a flying start, set in Scotland (with salty accents) but in a near-future where environmental disasters have led to ragged poverty and savage wars. This is a realm of concrete and steel doors, like a dilapidated military base (design by Soutra Gilmour).

Reconfigured in the round, the stage is startlingly intimate. McAvoy almost takes out the front row as he skids off the battlefield, roaring and gore-drenched, waving machete and axe. His Macbeth is a brutalised action hero, given to psychotic episodes and on the verge of a fit when the Weird Sisters (in gas masks) suddenly appear. He and Claire Foy's Lady Macbeth are, meanwhile, a couple whose ardent devotion to each other has been shaken by the recent loss of a child. Foy manages to convey initial fragility under driving ambition, though her character doesn't gain great depth.

The director's grim vision may call to mind other recent Macbeths (Rupert Goold's or Grzegorz Jarzyna's) and his staging has a couple of clumsy moments. But the slaughter of Macduff's family is heartbreaking, and the fight choreography (by Kate Waters) is storming. The occasional re-allocation of lines and use of doubling tightens the sense of a fatal web, as do the visual segues – the canteen saucepan at Macbeth's banquet turning into the Weird Sisters' hallucinatory cauldron.

In the supporting roles, Forbes Masson shines as a joshing then bitterly wary Banquo, as does Mark Quartley as a quiet, astute Malcolm. Let's hope the Trafalgar is on a roll.

In contrast, If You Don't Let Us Dream, We Won't Let You Sleep (Jerwood Downstairs, Royal Court, London *) is a let-down. Embarrassingly inept for a Royal Court main house premiere, this is a didactic, clunking effort from leftwing activist-turned-dramatist Anders Lustgarten, who has previously shown promise.

The play depicts cash-strapped Brits turning to Occupy-style revolution in order to oppose capitalism's still-profiteering top dogs. Financiers are glimpsed hatching a dodgy plan to "monetise" Britain's problem underclass. This is some kind of bond-driven, incentive scheme to reduce state pay-outs and line investors pockets. The set-up is garbled, though, as well as satirically feeble.

Jumbled vignettes include a xenophobic stabbing, a villainous cop, and uncaring hospital staff. In Act Two, the revolutionaries deliver barely disguised lectures on the national debt and the UN Charter. Simon Godwin's staging looks scrappy, with a bit of scaffolding and scattered chairs. His cast manage to enliven some of the wooden dialogue with humour, but only Lucian Msamati stands out as a quietly fuming, racially abused, ultimately magnanimous immigrant.

'A Chorus Line' (0844 412 2957) to Jan 2014; 'Macbeth' (0844 871 7632) to 27 Apr; 'If You Don't Let Us Dream ...' (020-7565 5000) to 9 Mar

Critic's Choice

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