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THEATRE / NEW STAGES: Of divers and divas

Leocadia - New End Theatre, London NW3 / Quelques Fleurs - Old Red Lion , London EC1
Leocadia - New End Theatre, London NW3

Like one of Coward's romantic comedies, Anouilh's Leocadia demands that most elusive, inspired touch to bring out its fairytale charm and yet do justice to the social criticism that underpins the comedy. It's a tall order, and one that this patchy revival by Generation X only fitfully achieves.

The play offers opportunities to speculate about the nature of memory and the need for fantasy, but, as ever, Anouilh weaves his thoughts into a clever theatrical game. The story is bizarre: Amanda, a feisty young milliner, is summoned to an aristocratichousehold where a dotty old duchess offers her the strangest of jobs. We learn that some time ago the old dear's nephew fell in love with a diva, who died three days after they met. The prince decided to dedicate the rest of his life to the memory of their brief bliss - Amanda's task is to help him out by impersonating the dead diva.

Using Timberlake Wertenbaker's serviceable 1987 translation, the production doesn't succeed in carrying off the first half of the play as Amanda tries fruitlessly to extract a job description from her vague employer. You have all but lost interest by thetime we get to the nitty-gritty - at which point it picks up immensely. As Amanda tries to emulate the orchid-chewing singer to the prince's satisfaction, spirited performances from Sophia Ashen and Matthew Radford stir up ideas. Is the prince's fantastical life a privilege of the idle rich, or an elaboration of the games we all play to keep reality at bay? Does he deserve our pity or contempt? Is Amanda's relationship with him just another fantasy? This is fascinating stuff, well handl ed; but for thefirst half of the show, for Anouilh, read ennui.

Quelques Fleurs - Old Red Lion, London EC1

The idea of fantasy as a means of keeping reality at bay also runs through Liz Lochhead's clever little duet, Quelques Fleurs. Reviews from the play's showings in Scotland have described it as immensely funny - surprising since though it is propelled forward by Lochhead's vivacious wit, underneath this is a devastating portrait of barren lives.

Lochhead gives us two talking heads, Verena, a well-to-do Glasgow housewife, and her husband, Derek. They take it in turns to address us, she sitting on her basket chair, he slumped in a succession of train seats. As they talk, it emerges that he is a deep sea diver working off-shore, while she keeps the house nice and goes shopping. But their bravado does not disguise for long the fact that childlessness and incompatibility are tearing them apart.

Like Ayckbourn and Bennett, Lochhead uses the weight of trivia to tell you about her characters, and has a brilliant ear for the casual remark that speaks volumes. Excellent performances from Carolyn Bonnyman and Lewis Howden in Joyce Deans's tight production ensure that you are still smiling as each little grenade detonates.