THEATRE / Darn, it's those dancing girls again

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CONFIDENT THAT no adverse comment on Crazy for You will stop the turnstiles clicking from now till doomsday, I have no hesitation in describing this award- festooned musical - for which a West End house has been restored to a state of tawdry grandeur that would gratify the late President Ceausescu - as an idiot's night out.

Yes, the Gershwin songs - archive discoveries as well as standards - are superb; yes, the orchestration (William Brohn) and choreography (Susan Stroman) are brilliant. But what about the claims to have launched Gershwin into the post-Oklahoma] era, in which music pushes the story along, and the book is supposed to make sense? Zilch.

In Girl Crazy, the original 1930 show, a Park Avenue playboy was shipped off to Custerville, Arizona, which he swiftly turned into a fleshpot seething with dancing girls. Fearing that audiences 60 years later would choke on this primitive rubbish, the producers of Crazy for You commissioned a new book from Ken Ludwig, who came through with the story of a tap-happy banking heir who is shipped off from Manhattan to Deadrock, Nevada, which he shortly turns into a fleshpot seething with dancing girls. Maybe the point of the exercise was simply to stage some of the long-lost Gershwin songs that came to light in the 1980s. But no, it appears that Ludwig and his director, Mike Ockrent, only raided the archive when the developing story needed another number. The story came first. I summarise. Bobby, the dancing heir, gets the brush-off when he auditions for Zangler's Follies. Exiled to Nevada to foreclose on a derelict theatre, he resolves to save it, and appeals to the contemptuous Zangler, who obligingly closes his Broadway palace, brings his troupe down to Deadrock, rehearses a show without advertising it, and is seriously miffed when the desert fails to yield a pack of mink-clad first- nighters. Would they have swallowed all this even in 1930?

There are intervals of lucidity: as when Bobby's showbiz aspirations take the form of a line of pink marshmallow lovelies decanted from the bank president's limousine; or his arrival in Deadrock (to a lazy, cowpunching arrangement of 'Bidin' My Time') where fairytale Broadway gives way to Robin Wagner's analogue set of a toy mine and one miniature cactus. When narrative and production elements do engage, the gain is enormous. Then the narrative snaps again, leaving song and dance spinning around in a void.

The fact that no audience arrives somehow prompts the troupe to perform 'I Got Rhythm' in the street, hammering out the syncopations on corrugated roofs and miners' helmets. The fact that the beauteous Polly falls for Zangler moves Bobby to impersonate him, so that the duo can do 'What Causes That?' (a marvellous number) as a mirror routine, evidently without seeing each other. Chris Langham (Zangler) combines dance with acrobatic comedy; Kirby Ward (Bobby) shows tap shoes as the human race's substitute for wings; Ruthie Henshall (Polly) can hold a note that turns through the colours of the rainbow. Why should this freightload of valuables be consigned to such an antiquated and unroadworthy vehicle?

The better, perhaps, for this 'recession musical' to guarantee its public an escape from the 1990s: not unlike the trashy funfair in Athol Fugard's Playland which seeks to distract the new year revellers from the realities of South Africa. Here, amid the fairground litter and a derelict dodgem car, are the latest embodiments of the tortured brotherhood that began 30 years ago in The Blood Knot: Martinus, a black night-watchman; and Gideon, a jaunty Afrikaner who is doing his best to have a good time. It is a classic Fugard confrontation between racially opposed outcasts.

Set at the turning point between the 1980s and the new decade, this is the first post- apartheid play: a fact which Fugard and his white actor (Sean Taylor) are initially at pains to conceal. From Taylor's swaggering arrival, loading every convivial line with patronage and implied threat, it seems that nothing has changed since the days of Verwoerd. Then follows the Playland show, a pandemonium of obligatory celebration mingling 'Auld Lang Syne' with gun-fire, which reduces Gideon, a haunted veteran of the war in Namibia, to crazed terror. You then understand why he has been playing the bully: to provoke Martinus into killing him. It is a meeting in hell.

Both men have blood on their hands. And my only reservation towards this searing piece is that their role as emblems of history sometimes distorts the present- tense individuals. Why, for instance, should Martinus confess his murder of a white rapist to this insulting intruder? Confession, admittedly, is the wrong word for the impassive dignity with which John Kani recalls an act for which he has no regret. His speech also introduces the play's main, long- delayed theme of racial forgiveness. Kani presents a taciturn, obdurate resistance to his frenzied partner; no wonder, as it represents the resistance of an abused nation, and reduces theatrical comment to impertinent irrelevance. Fugard puts no hopeful words into his mouth; but ends the play, as he began it, with Gideon asking Martinus to give his old car a push. By which time an order has turned to a friendly request, and bad faith to good.

After the beer-sodden macho yobs who get such a pounding from the likes of John Godber and Alan Bleasdale, Bill Naughton's Alfie depicts a relentless bird-puller from a bygone age. He has struck some observers as a sexual innocent who, nevertheless, should not have been allowed to get away with it. The truth is that Alfie never was politically correct. He is a genuine product of the working-class 1950s; in his own way a man of honour, anxious to be kind to everyone, and still capable of getting under your guard. Adam Faith (in his own serviceable production) plays him with a relaxed aplomb that enables him to chat away to the house while grappling with the ear-biting Ruby. If anything dates the play it is his prompt medical appointment and instant admission into a nice clean NHS ward.

In Richard Cameron's Not Fade Away Kelly Hunter gives a stunning performance of a sexually abused girl whose personality has splintered into half a dozen identities. So, alas, has the play's narrative which it is beyond me to reassemble.

'Crazy for You', Prince Edward (071-734 8951). 'Playland', Donmar (071-867 1150). 'Alfie', Queens (071-494 5040). 'Not Fade Away', Bush (081-743 3388).