Theatre: It probably looked good on paper

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Hampstead Theatre has commissioned a Lebanese novelist - a refugee from Beirut - to write her first full-length play. Paper Husband deals with a young Moroccan woman who sets about finding a husband so that she can remain in Britain. It sounds promising: especially since a programme- note tells us about Hanan Al-Shaykh's own experiences at Lunar House in Croydon, where the Home Office processes visa extensions and naturalisation papers through a secretive system that has developed - says Al- Shaykh - out of "contempt and fear and boredom". Unfortunately our interest in the subject ends about there. For Paper Husband can't decide if it wants to be silly or sincere.

It starts out silly. The heroine, Amina (Sasha Behar), a chambermaid at a London hotel, receives a visit from a professional matchmaker called Raja. As played by Veronica Clifford, Raja is a bustling and gaudily attired figure ("it's only mee-hee!"). Imagine Ruby Wax in 25 years, when she's been through make-up four times. Raja introduces Amina to three improbable men (each valiantly, if unrewardingly, played by David Fielder), but Amina prefers Gabriel (Rupert Penry-Jones), the easy-going blond cleaner, who enters the hotel room with a Hoover that, in his charming English way, he hasn't quite learnt to operate.

This is where Paper Husband gets sincere. Amina invites Gabriel back to her flat, cooks couscous, and dances enticingly, swirling her long hair from side to side. Well, Gabriel thinks she's great and they go to bed. Next morning Amina wants to know why Gabriel isn't going to marry her. He may wear the baggy ethnic clothes, and she may wear the western blouse and skirt, but last night she lost her virginity, and where she comes from, that's a big deal. Gabriel doesn't quite see it that way. "We had a nice time together, all right," he says, "Don't spoil it." The cultural differences are magnified, for those a little slow on the uptake, by the arrival of fun-loving Clare (Charlie Fane), another of Gabriel's girlfriends, who wears a shiny pink dress, emblazoned with sexually adventurous slogans. By now the silly side and the sincere side have also climbed into bed with each other, and during these exchanges what sympathy we can muster is reserved for the actors. If Paper Husband is a play about the realities of finding a spouse, then Behar - who can widen her eyes and clutch at her breast in a melodramatic fashion - could probably find herself a man if she walked once round the block. But if Paper Husband is about the conflicting attitudes to sex and marriage, why, then, does Amina work quite so hard at losing her virginity and then become quite so upset about it afterwards?

You know you are at a schools' matinee when the house lights go down, and someone goes "shush", and then dozens of other children round the auditorium go "shush", "shush", "shush", "shush". Here, you feel, is a quick, responsive audience: the sort that will react well to a bright, buoyant, multicultural approach to Shakespeare.

In Jatinder Verma's fun-looking production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for Tara Arts, the Asian theatre company celebrating its 20th anniversary, Western and Eastern styles are joined in a style that they call "Binglish". It's a bit of everything really. Magdalen Rubalcava's set is painted with a day-glo brightness. Puck (David Baker) sits high up on a bicycle seat at the intersection of two ladders. The mechanicals arrive as a hyperactive bunch dancing with chairs above their heads. When Bottom (Nizwar Karanj) turns into an ass, he rides round on rollerskates, with a dog- lead for a tail. When Peter Quince (Richard Santhiri) delivers his prologue for the mechanicals' play, he does it as a rap number. This is Shakespeare with teeth and smiles.

There are certainly some laughs. The biggest - which was followed by a flurry of whispers and giggles - came when Titania (Pauline Black) lay down and ran her foot up the inside of Bottom's thigh. But as this Dream unfolds, the funny stuff becomes a nuisance. Titania speaks of the discord that has followed her dispute with Oberon (Vincent Ebrahim) and sings part of the speech. Helena (Sarah D'Arcy) protests that the other lovers mock her, while Oberon and Puck lie on green springboards beside her, blowing bubbles. These cheerful bits of business make it harder to follow the twists of the story. When Lysander (John Leary) woke and suddenly declared his love for Helena - a volte face that usually causes a stir - the matinee audience sat in silence as if the plot had passed them by.

The English Touring Theatre's production of Henry IV Part One and Two, which opened last year, arrives for four weeks at the Old Vic. Timothy West gives an impressive Falstaff, his bulky figure belying a nimble precise mind. As Hal, his slimmer son, Samuel West, grows in authority and assurance across the two evenings, and Paterson Joseph makes a notably fiery Hotspur. Stephen Unwin's unfussy production allows these figures to stand out - as in relief - against a fairly dull background.

Theatre details: Going Out, page 14.

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