Theatre / Frogs: the Musical Gardner Arts Centre, Brighton

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The Independent Culture
To get the most out of Aristophanes's Frogs, it isn't vital to have been an Athenian citizen of 405BC, but it would, you feel, certainly help. At least that's the impression you might get watching Fiona Laird's feeble musical adaptation which is this year's mobile production from the National Theatre. The publicity speaks of "a brash fusion of political satire and timeless human comedy - as topical and funny now as when it was first performed." But one of the problems with this version is its failure to relate, at all incisively, the topicalities preoccupying the play's first audience to any of our own pressing concerns.

There is, to be sure, a finely compiled programme with articles and notes filling you in on the specific historical circumstances of Frogs' composition. In 405BC, Athens looked to be facing inevitable defeat against Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Two of its greatest tragedians, Sophocles and Euripides, had just died within a few months of each other, scarcely improving morale. There was also a thorny political dilemma. Should Alcibiades, the one man who might bring the war to a swift and honourable conclusion, be recalled from voluntary exile, even though Athenian democracy might not be safe in his hands? The trouble with the production is not just that, while doggedly sticking to the original story, it does not create any sense of its nervy, life-or-death context or that it would, indeed, be intermittently baffling if you hadn't read the programme beforehand. What's depressing, in a show that for bite and up-to-dateness is more like Crackerjack than Spitting Image, is the tooth-free way it introduces contemporary allusions.

For example, Dionysus (Richard Henders), the God who descends to the underworld to fetch back a playwright who will help Athens in her hour of need, is presented as an uninspired Elvis / Gary Glitter composite in platform heels and hair like a Jeff Koons ceramic. The Chorus (of Frogs, initiates etc) pushed the proceedings along with resoundingly unfunny a cappella numbers that range, we are told, "from do-wop to hip-hop" but, to my ear, simply range from bad to worse.

The show ends with a contest between the questioning, sceptical Euripides (Nicholas Tigg, kitted out as for the boxing ring) and loftily moral Aeschylus (Clive Hayward, garbed like a "great" actor in his dressing room). Wouldn't this have been an opportunity to bring in some real contemporary comment? Aeschylus wins in the original, but this could have been an occasion for chucking the script and saying that, in a week that has seen the publication of the Scott Report, it's the sceptical questioners that our society has most need of. I don't think a show like this can work unless it occasionally bursts through the Athenian framework and responds directly to current events. Bits of it should have the feel of having been written on the day.

The comedy concludes with Dionysus resorting to the scales, and weighing the playwright's work line by line. This production, though, leaves you reflecting on the other type of scales - the ones that fall, disenchantedly, from the eyes.

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