THEATRE / On a roundabout that swings

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The Independent Culture
THE LONG hand of a huge clock moves towards six and factory benches give way to coatracks. Entrance gates swing round and girls leave the cotton mill. The fairground appears, and a furled canopy fans out bang on cue with a shift in the score. Not bad that: music, set and cast spreading out in unison. This is just a fraction of what happens during the overture to Nicholas Hytner's Carousel.

What is immediately likeable about this production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1945 musical is the tact with which these hi-tech effects are used. Appropriately enough, much of the momentum of this Carousel springs from designer Bob Crowley's expert use of the revolve. It not only ushers in scenes, it plays a part in them, too. When everyone walks down to the pier and climbs into boats, it's the pier that recedes, while the revolve carries the boats out to sea. The emotional distance between Julie (Joanna Riding) and Billy (Michael Hayden), both giving fine performances, gets a telling nudge during one exchange as the revolve slides Billy away.

The discretion means that the moment that follows, when Julie tells Billy she is pregnant, isn't just a stepping stone between songs. It's powerful in its own right. Since none of the singers has a microphone, when the next song does come along the intimacy is still there. Carousel doesn't harangue us like a circus barker, it invites us up for the ride.

The performances make it an invitation to accept. Patricia Routledge as Nettie Fowler stops the show, not in 'You'll Never Walk Alone' where the action runs through unbroken, but whipping up the dancers in 'June is Bustin' Out All Over'. As she clucks her elbows up and down, they yelp, leap and swirl with a vigour that has nothing to do with the plastic smiles of the chorus line. As a black Mr Snow, the picture of respectability, Clive Rowe explains his plans for a large family by counting out muffins. This is an evening full of detail: Janie Dee, as his future wife, waits aeons for the tongue-tied Mr Snow to speak. Mrs Mullen (Anna Nygh) moves to kiss the dead Billy's face, clocks Julie's expression, and kisses his hand instead.

Billy beat his wife and she still loved him: the dark themes in Carousel must strike home if we are to swallow the sentimentality too. Perhaps Hytner's best idea for digging into the extremities of love was hiring Kenneth MacMillan as choreographer. It was his last piece of work. The second act ballet, a story in itself, takes a tomboyish Bonnie Moore from the rough manhandling of a street-gang, to urgent embraces of love with the fairground boy (Stanislav Tchassov). It's an exhilarating departure to find ballet of this intensity in the theatre. Moore and Tchassov swing round each other's bodies, in constantly suprising steps, taut with tenderness and pain. It was the highlight of an evening with many highs, and the fierce applause reminded us what a loss MacMillan's death has been.

Emerging from under a newspaper in Pinero's Trelawny of the Wells, Michael Hordern opens his small eyes, shakes his canonical head, and lets quavering complaints slip from his thin lips. He plays a fellow knight, Sir William Gower, the mean, tyrannical grandfather who won't let his grandson (Jason Connery) marry an actress (Sarah Brightman). His stream of ums and ers suggests he is waiting for the next line to pop into his head. But just when you wonder if Hordern is up to it, he tries on Kean's sword and chain and makes a connection with theatre history that sends a tingle through the house.

The members of the Sadler's Wells company are played by a distinguished cast; too well at times. Margaret Courtenay moves from a booming fog-horn towards tender concern for the demotion of her husband, the rubicund Peter Bayliss. Kelly Hunter, as the extrovert Avonia, throws everything at the part, including lying on a divan with her right leg over her shoulder. But Edward Duke stands out: a lank, moustachioed figure, flinging his wrists out, and sonorously equivocating over whether to take a part in the panto.

The sheer theatricality of the characters becomes a obstacle in Toby Robertson's production. We find ourselves watching a succession of turns. Trelawny nearly dies in the second of the four acts as the focus vanishes and the set-piece of the actors' invasion of the Gower household fizzles out like a damp firework.

By then the central problem is obvious. As Rose, the young actress, Sarah Brightman, making her West End debut in a straight play, throws nothing away. Every line gets the same meticulous treatment, and it deadens every scene she's in. This makes it hard to share the plot's enthusiasm for her character's comeback. It's distracting to watch a play that is liberal in its discussion of actors and acting and yet contains such a damaging example in the title role. One wonders what Pinero would make of the West End's present casting priorities.

There have been eight changes, out of a cast of 15, since Irving Wardle strongly recommended Barrie Rutter's Richard III in Hull. And a change of venue, too. Northern Broadsides, the company that brings northern speech to classical texts, has moved in for a four-week run at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, where the huge space and brick walls match the plain-speaking. Production values, here, remain overturned. There is a perimeter fence for a set, no music, simple costumes, and only two lighting cues. This is a blunt, upbraiding Richard.

The clip-clop of the clog on his bad leg gives eerie notice of Rutter's entrances. He is a Duke in a hurry. With one hand in his pocket, the other stabbing out thoughts, he has the brazen glint of the con-artist. Whether wooing Lady Anne (Sally George) after murdering her husband or enlisting the support of Elizabeth (Ishia Bennison) after murdering her sons, Rutter punches out big arguments with the urgency of ticker-tape. People speak in verse here because it's the fastest way to make themselves understood.

At Bosworth Field the armies don't confront each other full-square, they circle the large stage, as Richard and Richmond (Conrad Nelson) deliver orations from porters' trolleys that are on the move. If Rutter raided the broom cupboard for props, it is proof economy pays.

With Richard's death the cast slowly take off their boilersuits and throw down their staves. For a second it looks as if a director is going to bounce on and give notes. Everything is so spare, it has the raw drive of the rehearsal room. If this Richard is by no means definitive, it's powerfully definite.

A good year at Hampstead continues with Grace, a new play by Doug Lucie. Anna Massey plays an upper-middle- class Englishwoman who is going to sell her estate to some loopy American evangelicals called Enterprise Faith. They are planning a Christian centre in the English countryside. This weekend they are making an inspirational film.

Lucie's attack on the business-minded spread of the gospel is very funny; especially with this cast. Anna Massey undercuts the phoney exuberance of the evangelicals with carefully sculpted put- downs. Not that it is hard. One bullies his wife; one supports Oliver North; and one sleeps with an actress while his wife is in hospital. I hoped these characters would get more sympathetic so that some unease would infect my laughter. But I left Swiss Cottage with my prejudices intact.

'Carousel': Lyttelton (071-928 2252; returns and standby only). 'Trelawny of The Wells': Comedy (071-867 1045). 'Richard III': Riverside Studios (081-748 3354). 'Grace', Hampstead (071-722 9301).

Irving Wardle returns next week.

(Photograph omitted)