Theatre: It's all in the script, guys

Chere Maitre Almeida, London The Backroom Bush, London
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The Independent Culture
In tune with the tenor of the times, Chere Maitre at the Almeida is based on a private correspondence. As we write letters less and less, our appetite for reading the letters of others seems to be stimulated more and more. Nothing wrong with that, except that this production pushes the trend yet further, so that we aren't writing, or reading - only watching and listening.

The letters in question are those which passed between Gustave Flaubert and George Sand. He first wrote to her in 1863 after she had championed his much criticised novel Salammbo in print, beginning a friendship which ended with Sand's death in 1876.

The correspondence has been adapted for the stage by Peter Eyre, who also plays Flaubert. The directing credit is shared by himself and his co-star Irene Worth, who plays Sand. Not that there is much need for direction.

It is a curious form, this so-called dramatisation of correspondence. In this case at least, it is little more than a glorified reading, of the type that goes on every evening in bookshops up and down the country. The two actors remain static on the stage throughout, Worth arranged on a chaise-longue, Eyre upright in a small upholstered gilt chair. The set is neutral: an attractively distressed brick wall seems to represent nothing at all beyond the idea that both of these people lived in houses and conducted their correspondence from them.

Even the learning of lines is unnecessary. Reading from their "scripts" - Eyre's is sombre black, Worth's is decorated with a floral cover - they recite a selection of the letters to each other, neither actor acknowledging the other on the stage, in deference to the nature of the original mode of communication.

Although the staging is slightly absurd, the words retain the voyeuristic pleasure that the private letters of great writers often do. There are one or two gems of wit and wisdom in there, but mostly, the two pile elaborate flattery on each other, confiding thoughts that are both unsettling and comforting in their banality. At one point, Sand is furious because a botanist has described dropwort as "dirty yellow". She was, she tells Flaubert, moved to scribble in the margin that instead it was the botanist who had "dirty eyes". Her anger is similar when the Franco- Prussian War is raging. Both writers condemn the war in a familiarly Pinteresque manner. Eventually, mid-letter, Worth dies in a flurry of actual acting, and Eyre stands up in a flurry of actual creative text to say how sorry he is to hear this. Weird. Once you used to get plays within plays. Now you're lucky to get plays within theatres.

Meanwhile at the Bush, an actual play is on offer, even though the theatre turns out to be the upstairs room at a pub. It's Adrian Pagan's first piece of writing and it's called The Backroom, so it's probably fitting that it really is staged in a back room.

A couple of weeks in the lives of seven male prostitutes in a gay brothel, it is amiable enough, although its depiction of the gay sensibility is as banal as the depiction of British family life we've come to expect from the average sitcom.

Each of the characters, while believable enough, is also something of a cliche, none more so than Madonna, the "passive" Spanish boy who worships Kylie Minogue. Passive, in case you're wondering, is gay jargon for those who don't penetrate others. All the gay prostitutes are agreed that you get more work if you're "versatile", which Sandy and Charlie, the two men who form a relationship against the house rules both are. I'm sure you'll agree that's very nice for them both.

Despite the charged location of their infatuation, and the endless possibilities for their sexual coupling, the two lads quickly get down to discussing the vagaries of one-coat emulsion and interfering in each other's family lives. There's also a sub-plot about a gay footballer, which doesn't do much beyond remarking that Justin Fashanu is gay and dead while Graeme Le Saux is neither of these things.

And there it is. The humour is reasonably acute, the plot is boy meets boy, and the profundity is nil. It's nicely acted by the ensemble cast, and suggests a lot about the gay community's pell-mell entry into the cosy mainstream. If you're considering a career as a rent boy, then little in this work will lead you to question your employment choice. If you haven't considered such a move up until now, then The Backroom may persuade you that you're missing out on something rather fun. For a more challenging portrayal of gay culture in the Nineties, shove Queer As Folk in the video, and marvel once again that it ever got on telly.

'The Backroom': Bush, W12 (0181 743 3388), booking to 14 August.

Robert Butler is away

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