THEATRE / How to make drama out of a melodrama out of a crisis

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The Independent Culture
WHEN George Bernard Shaw admitted that his plots were less than original, uppermost in his thoughts would have been The Devil's Disciple. His third play, which is set in the American War of Independence, is structured around set-piece scenes in which the conventions of melodrama are humbly obeyed.

In the will-reading, smuggler Dick Dudgeon whisks his father's inheritance from under the nose of his hypocritical mother. In the case of mistaken identity, Dick allows himself to be taken by British troops who suppose him to be Parson Anderson. In the trial he is duly condemned, and at the gallows saved by the padre's last-minute intervention. All are moments of intensely satisfying drama, but it's in between them that Shaw says what he wants to about the subordination of women and the ordination of men.

However, he never unravels the play's central riddle - why Dudgeon, an avowed diabolist, agrees to put his head in a noose intended for another - and perhaps this is why The Devil's Disciple is performed less often than, on the evidence of this spirited revival, it deserves.

Christopher Morahan's production at the Olivier mostly avoids the sagging feeling that usually sets in during periods of prolonged Shavian discourse. It's one of Shaw's three plays for puritans, but the supply of crowd-pleasing one-liners, particularly after the interval when the play opens out from John Gunter's claustrophobic interiors, is anything but miserly.

As General Burgoyne, the British officer who throws in the towel with a shower of Shavian witticisms, Daniel Massey gets to deliver some of the master's choicest epigrams, and he does so with his usual bemused suaveness. His definition of martyrdom as 'the only way in which a man can become famous without ability' is all but worth the price of admission on its own.

There's much else to savour, though - Frances Cuka's sowish Mrs Dudgeon, Mark Benton as her doltish son Christy, Jeremy Sinden's gusty Major Swindon; even Helen McCrory, thanklessly cast as the one character whose piety is always more than skin-deep, brings the house down when she is obliged to kiss the sinner who has agreed to be mistaken for her husband. As for the devil's disciple, the part was taken in the 1959 film by Kirk Douglas (with Laurence Olivier as Burgoyne): Richard Bonneville is not quite the matinee idol but he gives a full-bodied, forthright account of himself.

The play's British premiere was in 1899, the year of Noel Coward's birth. While Shaw's hero begins by exciting moral outrage, Coward's menage a trois in Design for Living ends up doing so. Still, for its own British premiere in 1939, the Lord Chamberlain swiped his blue pencil through just one line of the play, in which a reference to the Times as 'the organ of the nation' is thought to sound 'vaguely pornographical'. Once that would have got a laugh - as so much of Coward's anti-media satire in the play still does. Now it amuses even less than it shocks.

As if to please Carlton TV, the Donmar's sponsor, Sean Mathias's diverting revival takes 'vaguely pornographical' to be a stage direction. In the text the (bi-)sexuality in Coward's semi- autobiographical love triangle - he wrote it for himself and Broadway's golden couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne - is submerged. Here each scene concludes in frotting carnality, as first Gilda and Leo, then Gilda and Otto, then Otto and Leo lock lips and limbs, each time when bereavement at the exodus of the third party dissolves into sexual consolation. In the end, having turfed out Gilda's foaming husband Ernest, they're all at it on the monochrome tiger-print divan. The Lord Chamberlain would have run out of pencil. And Coward will be spinning in his grave.

For all Mathias's bracing incision into a dark, realistic underbelly - what Coward called its 'unpleasantness' - the playing's still the thing: these self-regarding revellers are actors, counterfeits. When Rachel Weisz's Gilda (who's so hot to trot she makes a pass at the fridge) tests for the most dramatic place to leave her valedictory notes for Otto and Leo, she hurls up her arms in mock- shock as she practises coming across them. When the boys reenter her life to claim her in New York, they descend Stephen Brimson Lewis's steep metallic stairs got up, as Coward stipulated, as a pair of topped and tailed Astaires.

While none of the three principals is the type to forge a career in silk dressing-gowns, there's no getting away from the fact that Design for Living will always be as camp as a Bedouin housing estate. Mathias knows this: as Leo, the part of the playwright that Coward wrote for himself, Paul Rhys enters dressed as a Calvin Klein pin-up, the first of many gay sight gags. Aiming for its own kind of perfect trinity, it doesn't quite manage to be funny, moving and erotic all in one go.

It has been a busy week for the prurient. No sooner have Otto and Leo concluded their business than Kenny has belted Joe to the bed and whipped out a sexual aid. At least Coward didn't live to see this.

Babies was written by Jonathan Harvey, whose debut Beautiful Thing was last year's surprise hit, and will doubtless meet with at least equal success. Harvey, a Liverpudlian based in south-east London, has something in common with Roddy Doyle: both have a teaching background, which clearly offers the best education for anyone writing dialogue with their ear to the ground. Harvey's, like Doyle's, snaps and crackles incessantly, and will probably end up as a GCSE set-text.

His plots are still wafer-thin, and you'd have to truffle very deep for The Message, but that's scarcely relevant. Joe, a young gay teacher with a boyfriend on drugs (a charming Ian Dunn), attends the birthday party of a pupil. The mother, Viv, a vision of vulgarity in leopard skin Lycra and wonderfully done by Lorraine Ashbourne, is desperate to attack his trousers. Her brother Kenny, who has 'a degree in queer-spotting', gets there first. But there's a lot happening on the peripheries: Elizabeth Estensen has fun with Sonia the psychic neighbour, Simon Sherlock finds untold depths in the role of a diffident schoolboy, while a busy cast frolics and effs and blinds as if on a day out away from lessons.

Director Polly Teale has made full use of the space. Characters have animated one- sided conversations into the auditorium, and a tedious drag queen comes on and makes us all stand and deliver the National Anthem. If that's the slackest moment in the show (which it is) the performers can blame the audience. Ingenious.

'The Devil's Disciple': Olivier, 071-928 2522. 'Design for Living': Donmar, 071-867 1150. 'Babies': Royal Court, 071-730 1745.