THEATRE / Imitating art: Rhoda Koenig on Frances de la Tour in Hisashi Inoue's Greasepaint

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The Independent Culture
GREASEPAINT, appropriately, begins with a roar - not the baying of the crowd but the engines of an offstage demolition crew about to tear down a neglected Taishu theatre. Taishu seems to be the Japanese equivalent of pre-cinema working-class entertainment: the patrons munch on snacks and shout genuine encouragement or rude advice to the performers, who ginger up their repertory of sentimental favourites with topical reference and innuendo.

Though threatened by the technology and gentility that killed such theatre here, Taishu troupes still tour Japan. The single performer in Hisashi Inoue's play is Yoko Satsuki, the actress-manager of one such troupe, who dresses and makes up for her role as a young man while she rehearses her threadbare company. But are Yoko's colleagues invisible only because she is in a one- woman play? Or is she truly alone, dementedly conjuring up actors while the wreckers wait for her to leave?

Whatever the case, Frances de la Tour clearly relishes the chances here for novel theatricality. Getting into character for her kimono part in 'The Farewell Journey of Isaburo', she paints her face, without a mirror, red, white, and green; stuffs a padded roll down the front of her underpants and settles on her head a wig that looks like a platypus that has met an unhappy fate.

Grimly she drills incompetent old Uncle Nakamara, showing him how to walk like a woman by holding a piece of paper between his knees, demonstrating how to do the dying-father bit (she sinks to the floor and intones, 'My life, like fresh bean-paste in summer's heat, will curdle ere the fall of night').

The charm of Koichi Kimura's production lies in its evocation of this exotic, vanishing world, lit by occasional glints of familiarity; the customs may be very different from those of our own dear theatre, but actors everywhere are plucky, cynical, mischievous, and vain. Yukio Horio contributes to the foreign atmosphere with a design of richly coloured backdrops and glowing lanterns.

The 'story' of Greasepaint, though, is grossly over-familiar. The climax of the company's play is Isaburo's reconciliation with the mother from whom he was separated as a baby. As Yoko prepares for the role, she is visited by a young television star who claims to be the boy she gave up for adoption. Using a voice so much sweeter than the one we have heard so far that it might be coming from another person, Yoko kneels and confesses, 'If there were days on the mountains when the crows forgot to crow, I have never forgotten you for one single day'. She decides to put this touching reunion into her show, and when it doesn't turn out to her liking incorporates a rewritten version.

More skilful and complex plays have already dealt with these well- known themes: life imitates art, especially bad art; actors are always acting (more ambiguity: is Yoko a ruthless opportunist or a woman trying to exorcise her guilt?). The treatment they get here is too slight to do them justice. Like De la Tour's accent - not Japanese but blase Cockney - Greasepaint doesn't take us far enough from what we know: in the end mediocre theatre imitates mediocre theatre.

Continues to 6 March at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (Box- office: 081-741 2311)