THEATRE: He's mad, bad, and riveting to watch

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Almeida, London


Bridewell, London

Take the Fire

Lyric Studio, London

In the days when he was at the RSC, as Trevor Nunn reminded us in this paper a fortnight ago, the company had a motto that the play was the star. At the Almeida last week, the slogan was a distinctly more old-fashioned one. The star was the star. The play had a walk-on role.

Klaus Maria Brandauer is best known for the films Mephisto, Colonel Redl and Out of Africa. In , a tantalising two-hander, he plays Hitler's architect and subsequently his head of munitions and right-hand man. Like Oscar Wilde, looks set to become a regular stage figure: David Edgar is currently adapting Gitta Sereny's Albert : His Battle With Truth for the Royal National Theatre. Both men, to use Wilde's phrase, stood in a symbolic relation to their age.

At the Almeida, the Argentinian playwright Esther Vilar has returned to East Berlin in 1980 to deliver a talk on architecture. After the talk (which we don't hear), a young, high-ranking official, Bauer, takes to the General Building Inspectorate where he worked as an architect, and where he kept his model for the new Berlin. "I was Hitler's toymaker," he explains. It's never clear why submits himself to Bauer's cross-examination, which fluctuates superbly in Sven Erich Bechtolf's febrile performance between the conciliatory, the wheedling and the avenging. But submit himself he does.

Eighty minutes in, Bauer asks how he would revive the East German economy. says the Berlin Wall looks bad. It gives off the wrong message. Off the cuff, says, it would be better to implant microchips in people so that they wouldn't be able to cross the border. This moment tells us that, despite 20 years in Spandau prison and then 15 years after, is a monster. The problem is that never had this particular conversation; Vilar invented it. You'd think 's life had been sufficiently documented for a playwright to be able to make a case against him without putting new ideas into his head.

But Vilar, disappointingly, plays games on us with a series of leaden dramatic devices. The dialogue skims over issues that - if they are going to be raised at all - ought to be examined with care. Weak arguments and disingenuous replies aren't properly pursued: if the exchanges were a game of tennis, you feel, the rallies would never get beyond return of serve. On the psychological and historical level, the play fails to convince.

As a piece of acting, however, it's mesmeric. Brandauer has enormous stage authority, presenting an immaculate figure, in fur-lined overcoat, black gloves, scarf and silvery hair. He knows he can take a dangerous amount of time over small actions or casual replies because of the magnitude of what follows. He eyes a glass of champagne, sniffs it, sips it, and wipes the moisture from his lips. Then he tells us he first drank champagne when he was 36. He was standing with Hitler, in front of the Eiffel Tower, after the fall of France.

Brandauer's broad face and sharp nose are perfect for this sinister mix of geniality and acumen. He narrows his eyes and chuckles enigmatically before unleashing a Cheshire Cat smile. He suggests hundreds of unspoken thoughts. We shift between warming to his titanic charm and chilling at what he has done.

But the problem with , the play, is that you want to know (as far as is possible) what is and isn't true. It isn't fiction. I even found myself longing for surtitles running along the top, which - as the debate progressed - gave us the source notes.

Anyone who saw General Matilda B Cartwright of the Salvation Army in full flight in Richard Eyre's glorious revival of Guys and Dolls will know that Sharon D Clarke has a big talent. Her one-woman show, Lost and Found, attempts to find a vehicle to hitch it to: without much luck.

When you devise a one-man or one-woman musical, the headache must be to find enough of a reason for your character to sing 16 songs in a row. If you were looking for a plausible location for a musical with only one person in it, you'd be unlikely to choose Grand Central Station. But it's here that Clarke places herself, behind the Lost and Found counter, to answer the phone and share thoughts about trains, old loves and a new fiance.

Clarke is a terrific performer, with the whole dramatic vocal repertoire of swoops, high-pitched wails, rasps and bellows. She's less confident with the dialogue. But then neither Cole Porter nor Johnny Mercer helped her out with that.

Lost and Found has an attractive mix of classics with useful new songs by Richard Hansom and Warren Wills, who also kicks up a storm on the solitary piano, while retaining a suitably hangdog expression. All they need is a book-writer.

Lost and Found is one half of a double bill, Back2Back. The other half is Amsterdam, with Peter Straker - who worked regularly with Freddie Mercury - singing Jacques Brel songs. This larky show, with an ersatz hotel-brochure view of bars and romance, is at its best when it calms down and Straker focuses on the ballads in a spotlight. But neither side of Back2Back has enough plot to warrant the title of musical.

"Now I'm going to tell you how I feel. It's called really upset. Really upset. I'm really really upset." Take the Fire is a series of four monologues written, and often overwritten, by Jean Cocteau. It's performed by Amanda Harris, with a jazz accompaniment by Huw Warren. The show's title comes from Cocteau's reply to an interviewer when asked what he would take if his house was burning. He replied, he'd take the fire. It's the sort of remark that makes half the world want to throw up.

Take the Fire builds to a monologue that Cocteau wrote for Edith Piaf, which was based on what she had told him at the bar in the Palais Royale in Paris about her torturous relationship with her bloke. Believe me: you were lucky not to be drinking in the Palais Royale that night. Harris returns to the Lyric, where she was a memorably sensual Alma Rattenbury in Rattigan's Cause Celebre. She possesses one of the sultriest voices on the British stage, but if anything, these monologues play too narrowly and insistently on her talents. My heart was with Piaf's lover, who was hiding behind Le Figaro.

`': Almeida, N1 (0171 359 4404) to 27 March. `Back2Back': Bridewell, EC4 (0171 936 3456) to 3 April. `Take the Fire': Lyric Studio, W6 (0181 741 2311) to 27 March.