THEATRE / Going nowhere, very cleverly

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The Independent Culture
DEEP in the bowels of a Stockport grocery depot, the night shift is tearing through its Stakhanovite schedule. First a blindfold duel with frozen rainbow trout, followed by a round of Smartie tiddlywinks and Shove- Tuna. Sprout Tag has been suspended as liable to provoke managerial interference; meanwhile life goes on, and an urgent order for fudge fingers will have to wait until the delivery driver has proved he can suck up a nectarine with a motor horn. Does that sound like a comedy about Britain's dead-end jobs, or does it just sound facetious?

The first 20 minutes of Tim Firth's The End of the Food Chain yielded some of the funniest dialogue of 1993, especially from Stephen Tompkinson as Bruce, the piss-taking leader of the 'animal shift'. But not many people were laughing. Games are all very well, but when does the play begin?

When the routine is disrupted by two newcomers: Craig (Paul McCrink), who longs to excel in the games, and Debbie (Michelle Butterly), who treats them as childish. After which the plot diverges into two parallel lines - how to get on inside the group and how to get out of the group altogether.

Firth's best idea is to launch an Agatha Christie detective game as a play within the play, which turns the players' characters inside out; so that Craig the ridiculed outsider blossoms into a sexually irresistible Egyptologist. Meanwhile, as murder clues are coming to light on the Tangier Express, Debbie is trying to crack the mystery of why Bruce is wasting his time on games when he could be on a management induction course. They are looking down on the lights of Stockport. You needn't stay here, she tells him - you could get to Buxton. Buxton, he says; terrible parking problems there.

That is a fair example of Firth's lateral-thought dialogue. It also sums up where his sympathies lie. This is the kind of English comedy that baffles American spectators, as it rejects the success ethic in favour of style. It is anarchic, vividly characterised, full of action (some of the detail is lost in Connal Orton's whirlwind production), and at the end it dumps you down where you got on. It also has the appeal of an inner-city Peter Pan. Bruce considers his chances: after Buxton he might be promoted to Glossop, and in 20 years, who knows, Matlock] No wonder he settles for the 'Narnia of Stockport' with his lost boys. Fun is more important than getting on. With this play, and his forthcoming BBC1 series, All Quiet on the Preston Front, Firth himself is evidently getting on at high speed.

In Playhouse Creatures, April De Angelis commemorates the arrival of women on the English stage with a portrait of five Restoration actresses headed by the great Mrs Betterton. With deliciously absurd extracts from the heroic repertory and frantic dressing-room scenes, the prevailing tone is comic; but you are not allowed to forget the gutter waiting to reclaim these glittering figures, nor their dependence on male patrons who may set them up in style, or have them daubed with excrement if they fail to please.

Sue Parrish's production convincingly shows the company going about its business while the fortunes of its members are heading for zenith or eclipse around the massively authoritative central performance of Frances Cuka. Her Mrs Betterton excels both in substantial chunks of Shakespeare, and as a company leader instructing novices in emotional postures based on the hands of a clock (6.30 for anger and vengeance). Nell Gwynn (Fleur Bennett) is struck dumb with stage fright but manages to dance her way out of trouble and into the king's bed ('We had our problems - he kept going on and on about his Dad'). The ambitious Miss Farley (Nicola Grier) loses her singing voice and is thrown on the street after a hat-pin abortion. But nothing hurts more than the sight of the ageing Mrs Betterton, reduced to small roles, twisting threads together to pass the time. Artists or opportunists, they all remain prisoners of their time until Nell's closing line - 'Now we can say anything we like' - in which past and present joyously coalesce.

Good as it is to see Patrick Stewart back on the London stage, I cannot summon up much seasonal goodwill for his one-man adaptation of Dickens's A Christmas Carol. The idea is fine. Far better to dramatise it from inside Scrooge's mind than to load the stage with plum puddings and Cratchits. In performance, though, that is precisely what Stewart does. The virtuoso feat of creating 39 supporting parts has eclipsed his lead character. Stewart crowding the stage with dancers to his own mouth-mimed violin accompaniment is an impressive sight; so are his multiple apparitions as Marley's ghost. But the characters are presented through joke voices and passing grimaces, and the treatment of the deserving poor outdoes the original in sentimentality. Scrooge, convulsed with sepulchral paroxysms of indrawn breath in preparation for his first laugh, undergoes a memorable transformation; otherwise, you would hardly know the man again.

Move on to the Laurels, Brickfield Terrace, and you see how the Cratchits might have bloomed under Scrooge's patronage - Tiny Tim swaggering around with the Holloway Comedians and Bob preening himself on his invitation to the Mansion House Ball. For all its mockery of Dickens, Matthew Francis's revival of Keith Waterhouse's Mr and Mrs Nobody is the most affectionate seasonal offering to come my way; thanks to its manifest love for the Grossmiths' original, and to the leads, Clive Swift and Patricia Routledge, who is no less devoted to her spouse when she is delighting him at the piano with 'Pretty Mocking Bird' than when she is preparing to pour of jug of blancmange mixture over his obstinate head.

'The End of the Food Chain': Stephen Joseph, Scarborough, 0723 370541. 'Playhouse Creatures': Lyric Hammersmith, 081-741 2311. 'A Christmas Carol': Old Vic, 071- 928 7616. 'Mr and Mrs Nobody': Greenwich, 081-858 7755.

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