Theatre: It's finger-clicking good

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The Independent Culture
West Side Story

Prince Edward, W1

A Huey P Newton Story

Barbican, EC2

Yard

Bush, W12

The finger-clicking of the Jets has lost some of its threat. They spin, they turn. They clench their fists and punch the air. They leap- frog one another. Are we impressed? Not really. The blond leader of the Jets could be the tennis coach on the first day of summer camp. When he lines up against the leader of the Sharks, at the dance down at the gym, it's the top cat with the tie-pin against the top cat with the cummerbund. With pleats in its well-pressed trousers, is a fugitive from an age of innocence: a time when "PR" stood only for Puerto Rican.

This is the last Story as the creators would like us to see it. Jerome Robbins, the original director and choreographer, was alive when this revival opened and the book-writer, Arthur Laurents, has been heavily involved in rehearsals. The first five minutes suggested this was a mistake. Attitude has come a long way since 1957. It's only when we reach Tony's first solo "Something's Coming" that the appeal of the show reasserts itself.

Bernstein, Sondheim and Laurents moved Romeo and Juliet out of the piazza and on to the street. Here, that's a vast bare brick wall with fire escapes on either side. The immediate virtue of this revival is that it doesn't drown out the performers with high-tech staging and a carpet of dry ice. Hundreds of streamers cascade down when we reach the gym. Otherwise, the emphasis is on the glorious numbers. With "Maria" and "Tonight", the spotlit numbers are so simply staged it could almost be a concert performance. David Habbin's Tony (the Romeo character) is forceful, melodic and sincere. Katie Knight-Adams's Maria (the Juliet) has a voice as clean and glistening as her teeth. She survives doing the accent: when she feels pretty and charming, it sounds as if she feels "priddy" and "chow mein". The high notes stretch these two leads further than they might care, but neither fake the emotions. So the cheesy-factor is low. Forty years on, the love hits us more strongly than the violence.

As the book-writer, Laurents had the cheeky job of improving on Shakespeare's storyline. There are good touches. Instead of all that tiresome business about letters getting lost, Laurents powers the story forward with a gang rape. But he over-eggs the drama by having Tony kill Maria's brother (as opposed to Juliet's cousin). Could Maria really spend the night with the man who just murdered her brother?

People grumble about yet another revival of a West End musical. But there's always a new audience coming along to discover the talents of Bernstein - soaring, aching melodies and raucous street rhythms, combined with the superbly unfussy lyrics from the young Sondheim. is a great piece, and what we do best right now is revive.

Richard Ingrams once said that the biographer Michael Holroyd would make a more intriguing subject for a biography than George Bernard Shaw. In A Huey P Newton Story at the Barbican, the actor Roger Guenveur Smith plays the co-founder of the American black revolutionary movement, the Black Panthers. And I couldn't help wondering ...

Huey P Newton was shot in California in 1989. Seated on a platform with a microphone and ash-can, Guenveur plays Newton in a kind of perpetual present. There are references to Vanessa Redgrave, the Barbican and whether or not English people still use the word "wog". Guenveur's Newton is a twitchy, nervy figure. His leg bounces up and down, he brushes his knee, he twists in his seat. He speaks in a high-pitched, incantatory way, moving in and out of his own thoughts, sometimes questioning the audience, sometimes attacking them. It's a remarkable performance. There's no script. Guenveur sets off on riffs, which he compares in the programme to a song- cycle. He doesn't think Marx was a Marxist. He doesn't think Groucho was a Marxist. And so on. Watching it is a compelling, frustrating experience. Pushing Huey P Newton towards "mythic" or "tragic" status makes him less interesting. By the end, the person I'd become intrigued by was the performer. On the way out, he stands at the exit, shaking everyone's hand, like the vicar after church. Quite an original.

You can't fault Kaite O'Reilly's new play, Yard, for authenticity. It's set in an abattoir in Birmingham. O'Reilly grew up in Birmingham, the daughter of a butcher. Yard chronicles the hostility within a family as their business collapses. Not content with that, O'Reilly overloads her play with the human-versus-animal debate. Aidan McCardle is very engaging as the apprentice trying to win a competition. As the butcher's daughter Fin, Dawn Bradfield shows she is someone to watch.

'': Prince Edward, WC2 (0171 447 5400); 'Huey P Newton': Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891), to Sat; 'Yard': Bush, W12 (0181 743 3388), to 31 October.

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