THEATRE : Life, but not as you might want to know it

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The Independent Culture
WHEN you name a play after the road that runs outside the venue in which it is premiered, you give a strong hint that you are embarking on something anthropological. Here it is - life on the theatre's very own doorstep! - step in and take a look.

In Simon Bent's new play Goldhawk Road, which opened last week at the Bush, the suggestion is reinforced by the designer Michael Taylor, who creates in precise detail the modern interior of a small terraced house. The rigorous pursuit of authenticity extends to the off-stage areas. There are more props on show in the partially visible kitchen than there are in the main acting area. There's a window in the middle of the back wall that looks out onto the shrubs and rubbish stacked in the yard outside. When it rains, water streams down the window pane. Considering what a feckless atmosphere exists inside this house, the only unrealistic note in Paul Miller's intriguingly detailed production is that the characters stand around doing all this talking. Why aren't they watching TV?

This is not the Goldhawk Road bought up as first homes by Eighties yuppies. No one here has an office job. Dropping off some dodgy computer software for cash is the closest any of them gets to earning a living. The house accommodates eight people - five men, three women, some related, some not - who are either living here, visiting, or hovering between the two. The house is also part of the relaxed multiple plot-line, as there's a plan to get the father to buy the house off the council, nice and cheaply, so that when he dies the family can sell it at a profit. But if the play turns out to be less than the sum of its parts, the parts themselves are well worth following. Each character in Bent's play is as original and distinctive as someone you might bump into walking down - well, Goldhawk Road.

Taken together it adds up to a depressingly accurate group portrait. Bent spoils it slightly by letting John, the raddled old whinger played with an impressive, grav- elly self-pity by Jack Carr, say lines like: "50 years, 100 years from now ... we won't recognise ourselves." The subtext here has less to do with John's intimations of the future, and more to do with the author nudging us and saying, "Hey, this is a bit like Chekhov".

And it's not really. Bent has a wonderfully sharp ear for the repetitive, prickly way in which people who live with one another go on and on. The first line spoken by Reg (Neil Stuke) is a classic of the genre: "Don't say it, right - I know what you're going to say, so don't. Don't." The first dispute is over whether he should have bought ketchup or barbecue sauce. These very funny, quirky exchanges flare up at random and reveal more about the characters' preoccupations than the under-dramatised confessional speeches that tend to be given to the women. Simon Bent, it seems, is best at writing snappy dialogue for straight young men. Here, he is very well served by the performances. Danny Webb has the showiest role, which he seizes with indecent relish, raunchily spraying beer foam, hugging and kissing the other men, and demanding sex from his ex-girlfriend with the impatient manner of someone looking for the car keys. There's a lovely understated performance, too, from John Simm as the skinny, smiley one, quietly getting on with the business of getting off with Webb's ex-girlfriend; and, in his neatly ironed shirts and Persil-white trainers, Neil Stuke is outstanding as his pugnacious half-brother.

When Damn Yankees opened on Broadway in 1955 it won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Watching a revival of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross's musical, 40 years later, it is not hard to see why. Damn Yankees takes an old tale - the Faust legend - and gives it the comic contemporary setting of American baseball. Far from dating, a musical such as this - set in a Fifties America that probably never existed outside of musical comedy - acquires a glow of Arcadian innocence.

What's cheering about Damn Yankees, considering that the original Broadway show employed the legendary talents of director George Abbott and choreographer Bob Fosse, is that it still works very well in the reduced circumstances of a fringe revival. Credit for this naturally goes to director Carol Metcalfe and her buoyant cast, which includes two sock-it-to-'em performances from Peter Gale as a snazzily showbiz devil and Liz Izen as his endearingly vampy sidekick, as well as an attractively benign one from Daniel Brown as the fazed baseball star. But the evening really succeeds on the charm of the show itself.

The Bridewell, which is a converted Victorian swimming pool, undergoes another conversion, this time to become a baseball pitch. Don't worry, though: Damn Yankees is not just for sports fans. The middle-aged man who becomes a 22-year-old baseball star soon discovers he misses the wife he always ignored when the sport was on TV. Metcalfe's enterprising production shows us that Adler & Ross were really writing a soft-hearted show about marriage.

There are many reasons why adapting Voyage in the Dark, a novel by Jean Rhys, is a risky venture. But this is what Joan Wiles has done for Sphinx (the Women's Theatre Group). The novel follows the painful experiences of Anna (Katrina Syran), a young woman who leaves the West Indies and comes to London. As a story, it is, by its very nature, episodic.

The director, Sue Parrish, establishes a stylish nightclub feel from the outset, but the format she inherits from the novel - short scene, internal monologue, letter - stalls any dramatic momentum. The novel simply overwhelms the show. There are five actors in the company, while 18 other people are credited in the production team. You keep wishing it was the other way round. Ian Kirkby, for instance, does resourceful work playing Vincent, Uncle Bo, Waiter, Doctor, Preacher, Carl, while Anne White plays five characters and Hazel Holder four. But versatility is no virtue by itself.

'Goldhawk Road': Bush, W12 (0181 743 3388) to 3 Feb. 'Damn Yankees': Bridewell, EC4 (0171 936 3456), to 3 Feb. 'Voyage': Young Vic Studio, SE1 (0171 928 6363), to 27 Jan.