THEATRE / Full of sound and fury: Big Picnic - Harland & Wolff, Glasgow; Children's Hour - Lyttelton; Two Weeks - Cottesloe; The Day the Bronx Died - Tricycle

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The Independent Culture
IN BILL BRYDEN's The Big Picnic, civic pageantry comes indoors. And if that statement arouses more interest in the process than the content, then it reflects my response to the show.

Four years ago Bryden and his team first moved into the huge Harland & Wolff engine shed in Govan to stage The Ship, a theatrical epitaph for the Clyde's ship-building industry. The new piece, on an even grander scale, is a theatrical war memorial for the City of Glasgow Battalion which perished in Flanders. In both cases, an epic tribute to the city's past has won massive support from the new Glasgow. One step inside that transformed shed - a venue two-thirds the size of a football pitch, packed to the rafters - and you breathe an atmosphere of all-or-nothing commitment beyond anything to be experienced in the English theatre.

As a mass spectacle, its heart and soul are in the staging. Bryden and William Dudley, the pioneers of promenade performance, have created an enormous traverse set combining the home front and the battlefield. Seated spectators on one side of the scaffolding and promenaders on the other look down on the opening recruiting scenes. Then, as the battalion forms up under a piper for a slow march, a pair of double doors swing open before the marchers and the audience follows them into the war: the promenaders on foot, the seated spectators on what turns out to be an electric railway which shuttles them first to the trenches and then into action in no man's land with laser- beam tracer bullets sizzling through the darkness from the German lines.

Simultaneously, Bryden introduces a deus ex machina in the form of an overhead musicians' gallery (for John Tams's folk-rock group) from which Deborah Pope, as the Angel of Mons, hangs upside down as she sweeps over the dead and dying. Combining the mud of naturalism with advanced lighting technology to stirring effect, it is at once brutally immediate and poetically distanced.

In that respect, at least, Bryden achieves an intimate focus inside an epic framework. His text, alas, does no such thing. Written in stiffly self-contained scenes whose artificiality is emphasised by the fluid environment, it is a formulaic job along the lines of a bomber-crew B-movie. Enlisted by a harsh but warm-hearted Colour Sergeant (Jimmy Logan), the recruits include a gentleman farmer (Stuart Bowman) who insists on staying in the ranks, and a salty old-timer (Russell Hunter) who becomes a daddy to the boys at the front. There are occasional rumblings of doubt, pacifism and tribal intolerance, but no intimate drama ever takes shape inside the patriotic ritual. Perhaps nothing serious can be said about the war in a work honouring its dead; but did Bryden have to show the lads being so pathetically grateful for their little tins of tobacco from Buckingham Palace? By far their most eloquent scene is the mute fresco of warning faces which they present back home after the battalion has been wiped out.

With its tale of an evil-minded schoolgirl who destroys two teachers by denouncing them as lesbian, Lillian Hellman's first play, The Children's Hour (1934), launched an American dramatic prototype that led on to Miller's The Crucible and David Mamet's Oleanna. From the first two acts of Howard Davies's production, I could think of no other reason for reviving it. Having defied the taboos with her subject (based on a pre-1914 Scottish case), Hellman evidently saw no reason to break ground in any other department. A melodrama with comic relief (in the shape of a grotesque elocution teacher, squawkingly portrayed by Alison Fiske), the piece unfolds at a leaden pace that enables you to predict the consequences of every implausible development.

Mary, the culprit, is presented as wickedness incarnate, with no clue to its source or to her power over the other girls. Her grandmother (who brings the accusations against the school) takes what she says on trust, in spite of knowing the brat from birth. And as Mary delivers her lies in a whisper, the audience cannot tell what it is that convinces the old woman of their truth. After which, in a domestic trial scene, the teachers, Karen and Martha, cook their own goose by putting fatal information into the mouth of an innocent witness. Meanwhile, the production tightens the screws with ominous violin scratchings and Ashley Martin- Davis's grandiose penthouse is shaken by a non-textual thunderstorm. Emily Watson and Gillian Barge are excellently cast as the two accusers, but the roles leave them with little to do beyond telegraphing sly malevolence and moral turmoil.

Coming fresh to the play, I was unprepared for its third act in which Hellman smashes the melodramatic mould. At the point where the story ends, with the victims' legal defeat and the closing of their school, the real play begins. Everything has changed for the two partners, Martha and Karen; and as Clare Higgins and Harriet Walter play their inconsequential preliminaries, remarks on the weather or having a bath vibrate like sub-textual harp-strings.

Karen has a speech listing commonplace words, like 'love', and saying that every one of them now has a new meaning - as she proves when her engagement breaks up, and Martha acknowledges desire for her. Hellman's point is that lies take on a life of their own from which the innocent have no escape. When the truth comes out, it is too late. The two heroines have turned into damaged people. And nothing in the play is uglier than Karen's response to the guilt-crushed apologies of her former accuser. Harriet Walter luxuriates in a sadistic pause before replying. 'Get out of here,' she spits at the broken old woman, 'and be noble on the street.'

In Mary Morris's Two Weeks with the Queen (adapted from Morris Gleitzman's children's novel), young Colin is shipped off from Australia to relatives in London when his kid brother develops irreversible cancer. Consisting mainly of Colin's increasingly fantastic schemes for miracle cures, and his entirely practical help to an Aids victim, this is a four-square moral fable on the need for adults and children alike to face the prospect of death. It is also honestly and illuminatingly funny; thanks partly to the unsentimental treatment of the hyperactive siblings (even Tamblyn Lord's bubblingly athletic Colin can be a pain in the neck); and partly to the hilariously stylised portrait of the buttoned-up British family whose idea of a treat is a day out in the local hardware centre. In Alan Ayckbourn's production, the message sings out as from a Bach trumpet, with virtuoso pantomime entr'actes on international airways and the London Underground.

The message would produce a collective yawn from the teenagers in Michael Henry Brown's The Day the Bronx Died. As the middle-aged narrator lugubriously puts it: 'Death had established an unwanted intimacy' with his younger self. Flashing back to the time of the Martin Luther King assassination, the play shows young Mickey's fatal attempt to sustain friendships in the black and Jewish communities at a time of mounting street thuggery. Psychotic violence (embodied by the fearsome Freddie Anobil-Dodoo as a 15-year-old gang-leader) rules the stage; and the effect would be intolerable but for the physical skill and psychological accuracy of Gordon Edelstein's brilliant company (look out for Andrew Fraser, an acrobatic laughing boy, trapped between loyalties). And for the fact that this author, too, has a message: even if you escape the jungle, do not abandon the instruments of survival.

'Big Picnic': Harland & Wolff, Glasgow, 041-242 3666. 'Children's Hour': Lyttelton, 071-928 2252. 'Two Weeks': Cottesloe, 071-928 2252. 'The Day the Bronx Died': Tricycle, 071-328 1000.

(Photograph omitted)

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