Venus and Adonis, Little Angel, London <br></br> The Bacchae, Playhouse, Liverpool <br></br> Gaffer!, Southwark Playhouse, London

The most wooden performances ever... Superb!

The Goddess of Love is begging the chaste young hunter to reciprocate her passion - however, deities don't genuflect quite like your average mortal. In the RSC's new adaptation of Shakespeare's early narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, the Olympian lady remains magically floating above the ground even when going down on bended knee. With a flick of her sparkling gold tresses, she then zooms at lightning speed - like some nymphomaniac hovercraft - right across a glade towards the startled youth. Roll over Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Even the RSC's fittest actresses would find this manoeuvre a challenge, but director Gregory Doran can work wonders because his production is a masque for puppets. This is the first such show in the company's history and is charmingly staged in collaboration with the Little Angel. This converted chapel in a hidden nook of Islington is now run by Steve Tiplady (the Simon McBurney of diminutive theatre) and is branching out to include shows for adults as well as children.

Now and then, watching this tragicomic romance, one misses the inner life and subtle flux of flesh and blood, and occasionally an extended metaphor leaves the puppets pottering around slightly aimlessly. But the shortcomings are minuscule. Robert Jones's toy theatre is gorgeous, complete with flickering candelabra and gilded stucco. Venus and Adonis (tiny versions of each, on strings) dart to and fro among distant sylvan vistas, before they pop up on a dais in front of the proscenium arch.

Here their larger incarnations (about one third of life-size) are hand-held by several black-clothed puppeteers, Bunraku-style. Michael Pennington, watching from the sidelines, reads the verses mellifluously, accompanied by a twangling guitarist.

The whole evening is a feat of felicitous co-operation which amusingly contrasts with Venus's struggle to make Adonis bend to her will. The fact that he is, literally, a wooden performer is also a nice touch, for this ardour-resistant hero really is (as has been said of Orlando in As You Like It) the perfect part for a stick. He's a handsome boy with rock-hard pecs: perfectly formed but quite possibly a blockhead. He is also entertainingly disdainful, swivelling his face away and jerking up his arm, the hand suddenly cocking like a traffic cop's.

By contrast, Venus is softly padded, with silky skin. Her feet are like minute pink pillows and her diaphanous frock clings to her curvaceous tummy. Beyond that, Adonis's steed - an awesome beast, with a leather hide - gallops up the aisle, while the killer boar appears as a looming silhouette against the blood-red setting sun. It all ends in tears, of course, as Adonis races off with horse'n'hound, straight into the arms of Death.

Nonetheless, en route, this tale is remarkably frisky. You might even think the puppets aren't taking the Bard seriously enough when Venus thwacks her inattentive beloved and he resounds with a dim clunk. But then Pennington reminds you how broadly comical Shakespeare's mythological pair can be, describing how she flatly falleth down and the silly boy, to revive her from her faint, wrings her nose. That's not so far from Punch and Judy. This production, at its best, manages to mix prettiness and satire in a spirit that's true to the poem, and the humour is often finely balanced. Venus's most wanton seduction technique - flinging her legs round Adonis's waist and arching back - is a witty piece of erotica: surprisingly sexy, ridiculous and oddly sweet all at once. Their kiss, in turn, becomes seriously dreamy as they take off and drift, intertwined, like lovers in a Chagall painting. A thoroughly enjoyable, liberating experiment.

Sexual abandon is also two-edged, being both unwisely resisted and dangerously released, in The Bacchae. The wonderful troupe Kneehigh handle Euripides' Greek tragicomedy rather in the spirit of its titular revellers, playing fast and loose. Ripping up the original script, they gayly do their own thing around the storyline of the dictator, Pentheus, who tries to repress Bacchic hedonism. He imprisons the cult's foreign, effeminate leader, Dionysus, yet desires to sneak into the woods too, disguised as a female worshipper.

I can't think of any other company that are crazily inventive enough to pull this off. It must be said that some of the rhyming couplets are feeble, the acting is slightly uneven, and this show got off to a slow start when I saw it in Liverpool. The Playhouse audience clearly weren't sure, at first, what to make of director Emma Rice's Bacchic chorus: a bunch of shorn-haired, bare-chested blokes slipping into gauzy white skirts and giving us a few balletic twirls. By the end, though, the punters were whooping and whistling. This is partly because the chorus turn out to be delightful, cheeky clowns, rustling up their leafy wands out of disrespectfully rolled-up and snipped sheets of The Daily Telegraph. Stu Baker's fantastically eclectic score - a mix of ethnic Greek, Middle and Far Eastern, rap and rave music - brings out a wealth of religious and political reverberations. Meanwhile, Róbert Lucskay's lanky Dionysus starts off like some funny, freaky DJ-cum-magician, towering over everyone in gold stilettos and a tall scarlet fez. By the close, he's a chilling godhead in white robes, staring coldly over a scene of savage carnage and ascending heavenwards with his gloved hands signing in some incomprehensible language of retribution or terrible meaninglessness. Potently disturbing.

Finally, I thought I'd be bored senseless by Gaffer!, a monologue by a fictional soccer manager called George, written by Chris Chibnall. I know it's controversial to say so these days, but I don't give a toss about football. What a surprise, then, to find myself being entertained and gripped by Deka Walmsley's tour de force performance on a small, scruffy triangle of grass. Chibnall's play (commendably supported by the FA) is about the homophobic bigotry perniciously lurking within the so-called beautiful game. What's clever is that Gaffer! - besides partly playing safe by being a one-man affair - is a drama of two halves. Right up to the interval, you hardly guess the issue Chibnall is planning to tackle. Walmsley's George is a comically mouthy coach, yelling furiously at his invisible players. In between these vignettes, snappily directed by Gareth Machin, George tells the story of the build-up to their big FA Cup match against Liverpool. Then the second half deals with a drunken kiss that wrecks George's life and details how he copes with the personal attacks, backstairs bribes and media circus. His failure to strongly defend himself is slightly puzzling, but ultimately it leaves interesting room for debate. This deserves a transfer.

'Venus and Adonis': Little Angel, London N1 (020 7226 1787), to 6 Nov; 'The Bacchae': Salisbury Playhouse (01722 320333), Tue to Sat; Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (08700 500511), 2 to 20 Nov; 'Gaffer!': Southwark Playhouse, London SE1 (020 7620 3494), to Sat

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

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