Theatre: My kingdom for a better son

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The Independent Culture
Life is a Dream

Barbican, London

Gumboots

Lyric Shaftesbury Avenue, London

Riddance

Lyric Hammersmith, London

In Calixto Bieito's production of Caldern's , which was first seen at Edinburgh last year, the action takes place on a stage bare except for a large circle of gravel and a huge, suspended, distorting mirror. The only prop is a wooden throne, and the dark set adds grit to Bieito's physical reading. As Segismundo, the king's son who has been incarcerated since birth because of a portentous horoscope, George Anton throws himself around with beast-like abandon. As Rosaura, the dishonoured Russian woman who gallops to Poland dressed as a man, Olwen Fouere races to and fro, dress scrunched up and greatcoat flapping.

John Clifford's translation, though prosaic, plays up the artifice: life may be a dream, but this drama is definitely an illusion. The spartan setting is embellished by ample descriptions of hills and mountains, palaces and prisons; and Sylvester McCoy as Clarin, the cheeky, flapping servant, describes the advance of a cavalry as if he were commentating on the Grand National.

These knowing nods pep up what is otherwise a condensed philosophical thesis. The core debate is about free will and predestination, and the deliberations always take precedence over the demonstrations. King Basilio drugs Segismundo and returns him to the palace for a controlled experiment in rulership; Segismundo attempts to rape two women, and throws a servant out the window; Basilio's previous course of action is justified, and Segismundo is returned to the tower and told it was a dream. When Segismundo is liberated by the people's army to claim his inheritance, Basilio ponders that the more you try to stop something, the more likely it is to occur. Then, as Caldern is unable to resist saying something once if it can be said in three more ways, he ponders some more. But the cast do the text a disservice by failing to give these catalogues of cause and effect any variation in texture or tone. And the play's dream- like hypothesis is often overwhelmed by their unnecessary over-emphasis.

Gumboots was a sell-out hit of this year's Edinburgh festival, which isn't much of a surprise. Its energy, noise and unconventional, vigorous dance follows in the stomping steps of Tap Dogs, and the shows share the same designer and production team. What saves Gumboots from being just another product of a global dance franchise is that its origins lie deep in the South African gold mines, where black workers once stood knee- deep in water in wellington boots. Banned from talking, they slapped their boots or rattled their chains to communicate in the darkness and, from this, an expressive, percussive dance developed, which Gumboots' core performers learnt as youngsters in Soweto in the 1980s.

The troupe of nine dancers, dressed in work trousers, bandanas and wellies, have muscles, agility, stamina and fine voices to boot. Their bare chests drip with sweat within a few songs, but their co-ordination is formidable: line-dances involving hops and stamps, slaps and claps are a frenzied blur of hands and legs. The beautiful songs are by turn uplifting and haunting, and the cast even break up the folk-history lesson with a camp Chippendales routine. It's a celebratory ensemble show - and the cast's enthusiasm and enjoyment, with the magnetic presence of the rich-voiced Vincent Ncabashe at its core, transcends any of the production's structural limitations.

Catharsis doesn't have such a smiley face in Linda McLean's Riddance. This intense three-hander sees the involuntary reunion of two childhood friends with one they left behind in Glasgow. Kenny and Clare have spent 20 years in London grappling with their fears and secrets, all of which have something to do with the newly arrived Frank. Lewis Howden is a credible bundle of nerves as the dirt-obsessed Kenny. But it's Neil McKinven as the hard-edged, fast-talking Frank who holds our attention, particularly when Vicky Featherstone's direction forsakes chilly control for a more frantic pace.

'': Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891) to Saturday. 'Gumboots': Lyric, W1 (494 5550) to 9 October, then touring. 'Riddance': Lyric Hammersmith, W6 (0181 741 8701), to 9 October, then touring

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