THEATRE / New spin for Priestley's old copper: An Inspector Calls - Lyttelton; Gamblers - Tricyle; June Moon - Hampstead; Women Laughing - Royal Court Theatre Upstairs; The Thebans - Barbican

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The Independent Culture
THE STAGE directions of J B Priestley's An Inspector Calls specify that the curtain should rise on the dining-room of a comfortable suburban house. In Stephen Daldry's new production in the Lyttelton the curtain rises on another curtain. A 1940s schoolboy climbs out of a trapdoor and peers under this thick red curtain, which rises to reveal a miniature house marooned in a cobbled wasteland. A dinner party takes place within this house while the less fortunate scurry in the rain outside. If you can't hear every word of this dinner party, you still know what they're saying: just as you know what Daldry is saying.

After his remarkable success producing unknown classics at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, 31- year-old Daldry has chosen one of the great rep stand-bys - the story of an inspector who links an entire family into a web of guilt - to make his National debut. But he's turned it on its head. His central conceit is to draw the prosperous Birling family out of their tiny world and onto the larger stage, rather than bringing the world into the dining room. It's to Daldry's credit that, through designer Ian MacNeil's powerful images, which include the house collapsing, he pursues this reversal with considerable flair. By the time the Inspector (Kenneth Cranham) finishes his line of inquiry the Birlings are slumped on the cobbles, sipping mugs of tea and wrapped in blankets.

A first-rate cast, that boasts an indignant Richard Pasco as the Establishment father and Barbara Leigh-Hunt as his merciless wife, invests the characters with as much personality as Priestley allows. When the Inspector walks into a spotlight and tells us, with impressive sincerity, that we are all responsible for each other, we know we are attending the best- dressed sermon in town.

Gogol's Gamblers is a 19th- century version of The Sting, only this time the audience gets stung too. It's a ruthless one-act play, set in a provincial Russian inn, where Gogol mocks not only our greed but our suspension of disbelief. In Oleg Sheintsis's design the red wheels and black paint of the four carriages that fill the stage pick up the red scaffolding and black canvas of the auditorium, drawing us into a brooding, deliberate atmosphere where nothing can be taken on trust.

Dalia Ibelhauptaite's bold, extravagant production lays on theatricality like treacle. Phil Daniels with top hat and straggly black hair makes an entrance from beneath the hood of a carriage that has been on stage from the start. The card pack, characterised in the text as a woman, wafts through in the silent shape of Anna Candelabra (Fuschia Peters). There is even a magician's trick, with cards shooting out of a top hat. There is no shortage of effects, but is it effective? The hallucinatory quality is in fact counter-productive; you're unlikely to trust a con in a world where nothing is as it seems.

The outstanding reason for seeing Gamblers is Mark Rylance's performance as one of the con-men. Among a cast of delightfully Gogolian characters - including the chubby Tony Bluto as the manservant and the craggy Tim Barlow as the old man - Rylance oozes reassurance in soft American vowels. You feel you could scrape layer after layer away from this character and not reach the actor. The sort of con- artist Gogol had in mind.

In June Moon, an innocent lyric-writer leaves his home town for the cigar-chomping world of Tin Pan Alley. With the eager nerdishness of young Michael Crawford, Fred (endearingly played by Adam Godley) appears by the conventions of 1920s American comedy to be a perfect candidate for overnight success. But will he make out with Edna (Maria Gough), the sweet girl he met on the train, or the sophisticated gold-digger Eileen (Susannah Fellows)? The fact that no one really cares either way doesn't spoil some very good jokes.

Ring Lardner and George S Kaufman, working together this once, were keener to satirise the song-writing business than to tie up a few romantic sub-plots. In its latter moments, June Moon wanes from Paper Moon to Cardboard Moon. Some beautifully crushing lines go gift-wrapped to the imperturbable Frank Lazarus, the pianist at the music publishers', who dispatches them with the ease of a batsman on his way to a quick 50. Alan Strachan's confident revival only loses its nerve after the applause, when the cast sings a few extra numbers - presumably to make us feel good. It wasn't necessary. I felt fine.

A dark, disconcerting comedy, Women Laughing by the late Michael Wall, was premiered earlier this year at the Manchester Royal Exchange. We start securely enough in a West London garden, complete with the suburban comforts of plastic furniture and off- the-shelf euphemisms. This could be Ayckbourn or Mike Leigh. Two husbands swill beer and talk business while in the kitchen offstage their wives laugh at the discovery that both their blokes are in therapy. The nasty subtext soon rises to the surface as blond, bullying Colin (Christopher Fulford) slams a baguette into the mouth of his wife, while dark, nervy Tony (John Michie) confesses a desire to kill his wife with his bare hands. Quite a lot happens to these characters during the interval. By the second act the wives are visiting their husbands in a mental home. Tony won't speak to the bewildered Stephanie (Maggie O'Neill), while Colin has developed a lavatory humour that at least makes Maddy (Matilda Ziegler) laugh. We're left to puzzle out who is to blame. Was it the competitiveness and aggression of the husbands that drove them here, or the relentless cheeriness of the wives?

By turns Women Laughing is feminist, misogynistic, misanthropic and astute. Richard Wilson's excellent cast catches the shifting dynamics in the friendships and marriages and Wall's acid writing leaves the impression that men are happiest reverting to boys and treating women as mum.

The Thebans, the RSC's five- hour cycle of Oedipus plays, transferred to London this week. Last year, Irving Wardle praised individual performances in Stratford, while regretting the overall lack of vision. Seeing The Thebans now, after Ariane Mnouchkine's stunning production of Les Atrides in Bradford in July, it's possible to detect her influence on Adrian Noble's direction. Mnouchkine's chorus moved with the boldness and grace of dancers. Noble's Thebans is still most notable for its clearly characterised argument: as the austere John Shrapnel (Creon) jabs a furious finger at Joanne Pearce's fearless Antigone; or, with majestic stillness, Philip Voss's Theseus offers Oedipus (Gerard Murphy) sanctuary. Timberlake Wertenbaker's fluent, accessible translation is neither too archaic nor too hip, and allows the actors to articulate the feuds with a vengeance.

Irving Wardle returns next week.

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