THEATRE / Laughter that refuses to die: The Suicide / Bolton; Bare / Oldham

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The Independent Culture
Even locals will say that only Bolton plays well in Bolton, meaning that their theatre averages 82 per cent of capacity by embellishing Bill Naughton's port wine with occasional twists of lemon borrowed from the Rovers Return. Were that the whole story it would still be a shrewdly creditable way to run a community playhouse, but the Octagon's ambition stretches much further, far enough to revive Nikolai Erdman's satirical farce The Suicide.

Banned before it could open in the Soviet Union in 1932, it was not seen anywhere until 1969, and it has only been produced once in the UK, by the RSC in 1979. It might have been consigned to a footnote in the history of Stalinist repression, but Lawrence Till's superb new production shows it to be a major work: original, witty, mordant and movingly humane.

The central character, the impoverished Semyon, imagines a headline: 'Life is wonderful. Official denial expected soon'. The fact that this is the last thing the government would deny drives Semyon, forever comically frustrated in his attempts to alleviate his condition, to kill himself. His family despairs, but once word of his intent gets about, a host of would-be sponsors crowds in begging him to publish their own particular, cherished grievance as the cause for his misery. A rich, Jonsonian gallery of types, in which Billy Clarke's tearful crocodile of an intellectual, and Raymond Coulthard's extravagantly narcissistic writer stand out, the helter-skelter of their blandishments forms most of the action.

Bob Mason wonderfully evokes both scorn and sympathy for Semyon. In its saturnine lower registers, his broad Lancashire accent has the perfect intonation for his leaden gloom, while in his manic excursions, his eyes zoom around like a pair of unco- ordinated spotlights. His feverish deliberation about where to shoot himself is hilarious, but, as he discovers what makes life meaningful, and asserts the value of even just whispering 'Life is hard', he compels real sympathy. Here is the measure of the play; the bitterness of its satire never overwhelms its humanity. Only Till's outworn interpolation of Potteresque miming to old standards jars, but otherwise his vivid production, with some snappy routines on Penny Fitt's spectacular set, is as exhilarating as it is thought-provoking. From choice to execution this is a show of which any theatre should be proud.

Oldham Coliseum's latest offering is Renny Krupinski's new play, Bare. The subject, the underground world of bare-knuckle fighting, promises fresh interest, but, for all its rawness and clangour, it only succeeds in tip-toeing after Raging Bull. The three staple characters of fight-game stories are all in place: exploited poor-boy pugilist, Mr Fat Cigar, and the neglected and abused wife. The emotional exchanges and overt philosophising show little footwork, but it does have a genuine, extensive plot and Brian Croucher as the ruthless promoter fleshes out his type convincingly.

'The Suicide' to 29 Oct at the Octagon, Bolton. Booking: 0204 20661; 'Bare' to 22 Oct at the Coliseum, Oldham. Booking: 061-624 2829