THEATRE / He could have been a contender

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You can call Romeo and Juliet a tragedy or a love story, but you wouldn't call it a comedy. Not unless you'd seen Judi Dench's production at the Open Air Theatre. In a venue where bellowing caricature is a requisite for audibility, this suggests Shakespeare set out to lampoon romantic love before dispatching his characters as quickly and painfully as possible.

Dench opts for speed and volume over insight: the lovers alternate sobs, moans and bellows. Zubin Varla's darkly raddled, rheumy- voiced Romeo is a figure of fun, his romantic pretensions triggering whoops of laughter from his boisterous Veronese chums. Indeed, this Romeo's sudden passion for Juliet is even more suspect than usual, since Rebecca Callard truly looks the 14- year-old specified in the text. This is brave casting, but in so brash a production her pre-Raphaelite pubescence is disturbing.

Further down the cast one-dimensionality flourishes. Isabelle Lucas is wonderful as the nurse, but Richard Simpson's Friar Lawrence is relentlessly mournful. The best moments are the beautifully choreographed fights, where Connor Byrne's fine Tybalt exudes dangerous energy despite (or perhaps because of) a codpiece he could balance a tray on. Rupert Wickham's Mercutio is a laddish joker who snogs Tybalt during their duel, humps Romeo's leg in the 'Queen Mab' speech and whose dying exit is a fall-down comedy routine.

That's the last of the humour. After the interval there's a palpable gear-shift: the production can't wait, bar one daft cliffhanger (Juliet is about to wake up before Romeo swigs his poison), to kill its characters off. Still, that final litter of bodies is an awfully long time coming.

From one coupleteer to another. Granted, Muhammad Ali boxed better than Shakespeare and versed worse, but his doggerel gets as much space as his pugilism in Ali, a portrait of the devout Muslim behind the lippy myth.

Co-writer Geoffrey C Ewing, muscled and mouthed uncannily like the champ, shuffles quietly on through a side door of the Mermaid Theatre. It's 1989 and Ali is on a lecture tour. Although slowed and slurred by Parkinson's Syndrome, he's just rescued 15 hostages from Iraq.

Ewing's is an impressive and detailed portrayal. He flashes back to young Cassius Clay's discovery that an Olympic light-heavyweight gold medal is no defence against good ol' southern racism. Soon Clay renounces Baptism and the Muslim Muhammad Ali is born.

Thereafter, Ali's wives may be afforded less time than his trainer, but Ewing deals in impressive depth with the champ's moral wrangling, his stand against the Vietnam War and his subsequent blacklisting. And the fights are all here: against Patterson, Foreman, Frazier, Foreman again . . . Choreographed by Ali's sparring partner Ron Lipton, they look convincing. But in a one- man show they all look the same.

And that's this show's glass jaw. Ewing may float like a butterfly but repetition makes him sting like one, too. Some of the quieter moments get lost in the vastness of the Mermaid. A smaller theatre and a shorter show would get Ali down to a proper fighting weight.

Victoria Worsley's And All Because the Lady Loves . . . at the Cockpit is a playful divertimento on romance, Hollywood-style. With music and design contributing as much as the text, it's clever, funny and performed with engaging candour by its trio of actresses. But as Ali might say, it lacks punch.

'Romeo and Juliet' (071-486 2431) in rep to 11 Sept 'Ali' (071-410 0000) to 13 July 'And All Because the Lady Loves . . .' (071-402 5081) to 26 June