THEATRE / Intoxicating truths: Moscow Stations / On Approval, Garrick / Playhouse

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The Independent Culture
A toast to Tom Courtenay for his wonderful performance in Moscow Stations would have to be drunk in a mix of the following: beer, distilled varnish, white lilac toilet water and sock deodoriser. This terminal-sounding cocktail, nicknamed 'The Spirit of Geneva', is mother's milk to Venichka Yerofeev, the monologuing alcoholic dissident in this stage adaptation of Yerofeev's autobiographical novel, set in Russia during the stagnant, chaotic Brezhnev years. Quaff it in large enough gulps, and, our hero guarantees, you won't mind if people spit in your face.

A kind of despairing hilarity in the face of systematic demoralisation is the governing spirit. Looking like a narrow, frowstily unmade bed and philosophising in that plangent, posh-Northern voice of his, Courtenay takes us on what starts out as a drunken odyssey by rail to the city of Petushki (where child and lover wait) and ends up as a ludicrous and lethal round trip to Moscow. En route, Yerofeev discourses on such topics as the alcoholic hiccup, the mock-pedantry of manner and seeming silliness of subject simply throwing into relief the underlying passion. For the hiccup, in its dotty randomness, sounds its small protest against a world which pretends that everything can be predicted and controlled.

Riotous anecdotes spill out squiffily, such as the saga of the ticket inspector who accepts payment in shots of vodka, or the story of how Yerofeev lost his job when Communist headquarters accidentally received his private, jokey graph detailing the epic alcohol intake of his workforce.

Throughout, though, Courtenay lets you see the deep-down dignity of this intellectual drop-out and the tragedy of a society where drunkenness was often the token of integrity: 'I, who have consumed so much, that I've lost track of how much, and in what order - I'm the soberest man in the world'.

At the Playhouse, Peter Hall and company have put thought and style into an entertaining revival of Frederick Lonsdale's On Approval, the Twenties comedy in which two titanic egotists are holed up, servantless, in the wilds of Scotland with their potential marriage partners.

Why all four should have managed to home in, with such unerring inaccuracy, on their temperamental opposites, remains a a mystery. But Hall helps by complicating your sympathies. Anna Carteret's imperious widow Mrs Wislack comes across for a time as less the tart-tongued tyrant than the crap-cuttingly candid emancipated woman, as when she tells the big- headed, bankrupt Duke of Bristol that if he had just a little more brain, he'd be in an asylum. As this latter, Martin Jarvis has a smile of such self- besotted vacancy that you almost feel like joining him in his exclusive fan club. A toast here, too, then, if in something more conservative than 'The Spirit of Geneva'.

'Moscow Stations', The Garrick, London, WC2 (071-494 5085). 'On Approval', The Playhouse, London, WC2 (071- 839 4292)

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