THEATRE / Neil Bartlett 1, Pete Townshend 0: Night After Night - Royal Court; Iron Man - Young Vic; The Clearing - Bush

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The Independent Culture
IN Night After Night, Neil Bartlett faces the musical. Together with Nicolas Bloomfield, the actor, producer and director has concocted an evening with 17 numbers, an on-stage band, a six-man chorus and, for the leading lady, more costume changes than Diana Ross made in the whole of the 1970s. But this is by no means your straight West End show: Cats-lovers may find themselves rubbed up the wrong way. Night After Night tips out the form's conventions on to the stage, shines a bright light in their eyes and watches them flinch.

This is a musical that is troubled by musicals, filled with anxious thinking about the genre's fantasies and their implications. It's not all-singing, all-dancing, then; it's half-singing, half-dancing at best. And frequently, it's half-hearted singing, half-hearted dancing.

Bartlett, who has said he believes it's widely considered taboo for a gay man to impersonate a straight one, takes on the part of his own father. Newly married, nervously excited, Bartlett senior is waiting for his wife at a theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue one night in 1958, excited because his wife is pregnant, nervous because she's late. It's a small incident in a man's life, but Bartlett uses it to work out how he and his father could share so many physical and so few sexual traits. As Bartlett pere is swept up by a wonderful parade of gay theatre 'types' - the cloakroom attendant, the barman, the member of the chorus, all tarted to the heavens, playing their roles as if in inverted commas - Bartlett junior looks on, contemplating his father's orientations just as his father is confronted by his. It's an oddly touching conceit and Bartlett's performance, awkward and arch by turn, brings it home.

For much of the time, too, the play is very funny. The dialogue is briskly colloquial ('not that I'm saying that we never get an evening off because we do and that's lovely') and the routines (led by the show-stopping Beverley Klein, a queen's queen with something of the quality of Prunella Scales) flip between the knowing and the naive. They slice neatly across the music, played by a quartet of piano, bass, clarinet and violin, the last provided by the unfairly gifted Anna Hemery.

Musicals are usually about fulfilment, but Night After Night is about expectation (Mr Bartlett is expecting his wife, his wife is simply expecting). The piano piece that acts as an overture is full of stops and starts, preparing you for a play that itself constantly changes tack, holding its audience in suspension. It would be easy for the show to fall apart, and in the second half the false climaxes become slightly wearing, but it's a tribute to Barlett and his fine company (gold stars for Reginald Bundy and Paul Shaw) that, for most of the time, it holds and coheres. You'd call it a tour de force, if that didn't sound so macho.

Where Night After Night is virtually a meditation on musicals, The Iron Man, Pete Townshend's rock opera for children based on the poem by Ted Hughes, bears scant evidence of having thought about the form at all. Townshend's metal has been tested and it clunks.

Hughes's story is straightforward. A giant iron man falls from a cliff, frightens some farmers, makes friends with a little boy, moves to a scrapyard (becoming less of an iron man, more a junk male) and saves the world from an evil space monster. Simple. So why in making it simpler still has Townshend fallen flat on his face? Partly it's that in penning the lyrics, he's lost the lyricism (no seagulls, no barbed wire 'like spaghetti') and in filing the action down, he's somehow managed to make the plot completely baffling.

But mainly it's as if he and director David Thacker have only half-listened to the poem, co-opting what's really quite a sophisticated argument about the interplay between nature and machinery ('the machine, after all, fights off a wicked living creature) into a blast against the modern age. 'They lied about nuclear dumps/They took us for chumps' frown his group of angry children, who are Not Going To Put Up With It Any More (shades of The Who there). As they say later, 'We're not going to cry in the face of hypocrisy'. Hypocrisy - yeah.

Tucked into this, there's some psychological mumbo jumbo about 'knowing who you are' (to which it is time children said 'Enough]'), but no music to swell it. Though recognisably the work of Townshend - played on acoustic guitar, synthesiser and drums - there's nothing on the anthemic, or balladic, scale of parts of Tommy (which recently raked in five Tonys on Broadway). In fact, with the exception of the closing number, 'What We Want is a Brand New Year', the show is strangely bereft of snappy tunes.

The singing, however, is accomplished - much more than that in the case of Anthony Barclay who, with a clear bell of a voice, plays Hogarth, the boy. And Shelagh Keegan's set - a heap of hubcaps and chains and rusty cars presided over by a huge animated robotic man - is spectacular. Otherwise, don't go expecting to be ore-struck.

'You people think you have a monopoly on heart,' says a bitter English soldier to an Irish 'wench' in Helen Edmundson's The Clearing. You're glad someone's said it. This is a finely written play, full of sharp observation and clever writing, but it does lean heavily on that received idea of the 'sweet, strange' Irish as a people unusually in touch with the spiritual. Here, they even mingle with the elements. 'That was Killaine,' a character says at one point; to which another replies, 'No, it was the wind.'

The play is set in County Kildare between the years of 1652 and 1655 when, in the grip of Cromwell, all the Troubles started. In the marriage between a local lass (Susan Lynch, with black locks and a fiery look in her eye) and an English landowner (Adrian Rawlins, the picture of charming complacency), Edmundson sets opportunism against idealism, personal regard against a responsibility for one's country. As the title suggests, the characters feel themselves in a period of stasis, hedged in by disaster. 'It is surely the beginning of the end,' someone says. If they only knew.

'Night After Night': Royal Court, 071-730 1745. 'Iron Man': Young Vic, 071-928 6363. 'The Clearing': Bush, 081-743 3388.

Irving Wardle returns next week.