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THEATRE / FRINGE: Suffer little children

Like Mother Courage herself, the National Theatre's mobile production of Brecht's epic has been on the road for some time. Its cart comes to rest in the Cottesloe, London, after touring the country for several months, and it arrives with many of the virtues and drawbacks of a small-scale touring production.

On a simple, no-nonsense set (Kate Burnett) with a couple of shattered whitewashed houses standing for the recurring ravages of war, Anthony Clark's production opens clearly and confidently. There's no extra baggage, plenty of gusto and a small, tightly-controlled cast, which bodes well for a production that will keep the momentum going and not crumble under the weight of Brecht's mighty anti-war drama.

Clark stages the play in a timeless no-man's land - though the costumes of the soldiers hint at the Thirty Years War during which the play is set, the production is peppered with anachronistic touches. At one point a soldier barters with a hairdryer for a glass of Mother Courage's brandy, while the scene- setting is done in solemn BBC tones on a crackling Forties wireless - a neat idea, which instantly summons up images of war for a British audience. These modern infiltrations could jar, but in fact they are well enough chosen and sparingly enough used to underline the obvious fact that Brecht's play now has new resonance, without ramming it home. And something about the tawdriness and fatigue that the setting suggests also helps to emphasise the idea that war is an unstoppable self-perpetuating machine that gobbles up people, dignity and self-respect as it goes.

Ellie Haddington as the amoral Mother Courage starts in the same ebullient mood as the production. Dressed in headscarf, boots and grubby housecoat, and armed with Hanif Kureishi's enjoyably foul- mouthed translation, she plays Courage as a chirpy cockney, who could be on any barrow in an East End market. She holds the stage with her blustering style, coarse, grating voice and focused energy and manages well that difficult knife-edge of Courage's character, inducing admiration and disgust simultaneously. She also handles subtly the tragic scene in which, having bartered too long, she is forced to witness her dead son's body without giving herself away.

What she doesn't build up, though, is a grim sense of the tragic stature of the character; there is too much of the winning turn. Without this, the production loses the depth it could have; it also seems to suffer from battle fatigue, gradually slowing down. When momentum fails, the cast reaches for comic stylisation, which simply looks rather desperate - the whole cart just needs more horsepower to stay the distance. But there are a couple of strong performances, notably Michelle Joseph as Kattrin, and Andy Hockley as the chaplain.

Kylie, in Brian B Thompson's Derby Day (Cockpit, London) is also a survivor. A Northern lass from a humble background, she has one ambition: to ride in the Derby. How she surmounts the obstacles in her way is the subject of Thompson's cartoon-style play, which gallops to conclusion in a series of wittily-written episodes. It's not deep, but it's very enjoyable: a classic story (with a social point) of the underdog with a winning streak, and Yorkshire Theatre Company performs it with adept physical control and appealing energy. A tight touring show that stays the course.

'Mother Courage' (071-928 2252); 'Derby Day' (071-402 5081).

(Photograph omitted)