Theatre: Do we believe in this Godot?

Waiting for Godot Royal Exchange, Manchester Collateral Damage Tricycle, London The Importance of Being Earnest Festival Theatre, Chichester The Late Middle Classes Richmond, London
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The Independent Culture
Our leading exponent of comic exasperation shuffles on to the Royal Exchange stage in a Coca-Cola t-shirt and battered trainers. If this stooped, dishevelled figure, with the grizzly white beard and sharp blue eyes isn't Victor Meldrew, then he must be his impoverished brother.

It's smart thinking to cast Richard Wilson in Waiting For Godot. Samuel Beckett requires actors to inject an upbeat vitality into magnificently downbeat remarks. Wilson does this (and some), seeming to heave lines out of his stomach, as if testing how far he can hawk them. He's also an impressive digester of information, staring in jaw-dropped amazement, for instance, at Pozzo's foul treatment of his servant Lucky.

I've never seen the two vagrants so widely contrasted. As Vladimir, Wilson gives a large, demonstrative performance. As Estragon, Brian Pettifer is just as (if not more) effective, giving a low-key, blank, thoughtful one. The only drawback is the age gap which looks wide enough for these lifelong friends to be father and son.

Their incisive Scots accents set them apart from the booming sounds of the shires that enter with Nicky Henson's Pozzo. In cords and boots, you might find this Pozzo in half the pubs in Gloucestershire. Cruel and sentimental he jerks on the red rope round the neck of James Duke's salivating Lucky and pulls a hanky out to cry.

This is a strong cast. But the decisive detail in Matthew Lloyd's involving production is that it takes place in the round. This strips it of the vaudeville elements that were beautifully caught by Alan Dobie and Julian Glover in Peter Hall's production at the Piccadilly.

Instead, as we watch the characters circle back and forth round the tree, there is a stronger feeling of inclusiveness: it's not just about them, it's us too. This emphasis underlines the character of Beckett's world. It may be set outdoors on a country road, but its mental atmosphere is urban, theatrical, enclosed and male.

These figures circle a tree that might have been sculpted out of the inner wires of a computer. One day, they say, is the same as another. When the tree sprouts leaves, Julian McGowan's designs give us five illuminated green lights. Probably the most important play of this century offers a partial, denuded vision. You wish Beckett had gone fishing. Or run a creche.

Half the playwrights in Britain seem to be hard at work on a brand-new translation of one of only five plays by Chekhov. Meanwhile Tariq Ali, Howard Brenton and Andy de la Tour have come up with a swift and telling response to the Balkans War. Collateral Damage is a 30-minute play about a middle-class couple preparing a dinner party. The asparagus has to boil. The white burgundy has to breathe. The table has to be laid. It's Daniel's birthday. He's 50 - just like Nato.

This north London couple, played by Jeremy Clyde and Susan Wooldridge, fall into an argument about what Britain is doing. Clyde is the hawk, Wooldridge is the dove: he wants to hit hard and fast, she wants to sit down and talk. It's unusual to hear conversations between characters on stage that you have already participated in earlier that day.

Collateral Damage builds to an eloquent climax when Clyde uses the neatly-arranged cutlery on the table to demonstrate to Wooldridge what military steps need to be taken to secure a victory. By the time he has finished, the table looks a complete mess. Someone should show Collateral Damage on TV tomorrow.

What's attractive about Patricia Routledge's performance as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest is the seriousness with which she treats the character. This Lady Bracknell isn't an over-the-top theatrical gorgon. When she hears bad news her eyelids close and her face turns stony. This stout matron has a niece in the market-place and means business. She's absolutely set in her ways; her voice can remain on a single note for three-quarters of a sentence as if singing a response in church. She may get a round from the Chichester audience when she enters, but this is a remarkably unflashy performance. Its authority extends even to the interval. The voice over the speakers exhorting us to return to our seats is Routledge's own.

Christopher Morahan's new production, which opens this year's Festival, has to tackle presenting a proscenium play on an epic stage. The auditorium saps a late-Victorian play of some of its energy. If Morahan's production misses Wilde's effervescence, that's one reason.

But there are still good things. Adam Godley's lanky and sonorous Jack speaks and moves with comic assurance: conveying shock or outrage with the unfurling of a hand or the swinging of a chin. Jonathan Cecil is charmingly pink-faced and seraphic as Canon Chasuble and the two young women are light and forceful: Saskia Wickham's Gwendolen, the regal product of city life, a perfect foil to Rebecca Johnson's fresh and forthright Cecily.

I was going to review Simon Gray's new play The Late Middle Classes, which opened in Watford, once it had transferred to the West End. Now, The Late Middle Classes is no longer "going in", after negotiations stalled between the producers and the theatre owners. I caught it midweek, during its last performances at Richmond. Others had left it late too: there was Dawn French, Susan Hampshire, Antony Sher and so on. It might have been a first night.

Gray's play returns us to Southern England in the 1950s when the middle classes used powdered eggs for omelettes, played tennis with a wooden racket and didn't hesitate to make casually anti-Semitic remarks. Gray evokes this remote world with an almost anthropological zeal. It's essential that he does. The fascination of his play lies in watching a specific code of behaviour struggle with various sexual disturbances: marital infidelity, youthful masturbation and parental fears about predatory homosexuals.

It's tough reproducing an authentic Fifties feel without making it look old-fashioned but Harold Pinter's masterly production weights the action with a sure sense of pressure and tact. Between them Gray and Pinter create an ominous aura of mystery and ambiguity that is captivating. If Pinter had never written a word, his work as a director would mark him out in British theatre.

Gray spreads our sympathies towards characters that mightn't naturally enlist them. As the brittle mother, Harriet Walter uses a breezy hauteur to disguise her neediness and pain. James Fleet is subtle and precise as her confused uninspiring husband. And Nicholas Woodeson is wonderfully veiled as the mole-like music teacher. All are good. It deserved a West End audience.

`Waiting For Godot': Manchester Royal Exchange (0161 833 9833) to 26 June; `Collateral Damage': Tricycle, NW6 (0181 328 1000) to 30 May; `The Importance of Being Earnest': Chichester Festival Theatre (01243 781 312) to 17 July.