Theatre: On the Fringe

One Sez This then the other sez that tristan bates theatre, london Stone goddess tristan bates maurice bloomsbury theatre, london
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THERE'S A disarming lack of polish to One Sez This Then the Other Sez That, David Halliwell's 50-minute amalgam of extracts from a forthcoming play. It's so rare to see something unfinished that watching it feels conspiratorial: every reaction, whether a laugh or a slightly bored cough, might be a signal to the writer that the dialogue works or should be changed.

Halliwell has recently enjoyed capacity West End audiences, thanks to Ewan McGregor's enterprising appearance in Little Malcolm, so it's bizarre that he decided to present these snippets to a slim audience in one of London's tiniest fringe venues. When complete, the tentatively titled Brothers in Arms will play in the Bush Theatre; the intimation of apprehension behind Halliwell's desire to test the water first adds to the sense of reciprocity.

Such camaraderie is in little evidence in the play, which is a surreal dance through numerous overlapping conversations. Here, communication isn't an exchange of ideas but a battle to be heard. Afforded a fluidity by Jill Howson and Philip Ralph's light performances, the pronouncements on love, loneliness, bodily functions and the subconscious are rarely singular, but have a homely, moving humour.

Apparently, in its original Italian, Luigi Pirandello's Diana e la Tuda has a similar structure to Halliwell's work in progress: instead of talking, the characters deliver enigmatic statements, many of which they abandon still incomplete. The resulting ambiguity of theme and plot is awkwardly handled in A Star Danced theatre company's heavy-handed production.

Translated (and directed) by Katharine Bailey Chubb, the English premiere of Stone Goddess is an excessively serious period melodrama. Weighty words like torture, suffering, agony and revenge ricochet through it, but have all the effect of a toy gun firing blanks.

Tuda, a professional artist's muse, flits between a bad painter, an obsessive sculptor and his antagonistic mentor until it transpires that a statue of Diana for which she has been modelling has been sucking the life from her.

This is an intriguing premise, one of many thought-provoking theories that Pirandello expounds in a series of paradoxical conflicts. Age - as represented by solemn, retired sculptor Giuncano - envies youth, fears death and condemns the false immortality of art. That immortality is precisely what his protege Dossi craves, as he devotes his own youth to outshining beauty by carving one definitive, exquisite work of art.

Pirandello subtly intertwines several battles of wills: between the artists, their models, even between the goddesses Venus, who granted life to Pygmalion's statue, and Diana, mythology's defiantly unique eternal virgin, whom Dossi zealously celebrates. However, the stilted translation and some superficial acting struggle to convey these arguments, settling instead for tacky histrionics. Victoria Duarri's affable Tuda doesn't quite make the transition from frivolous imp to tragic heroine, and her passionate struggle against Zena Khan's brisk Sarah, not to mention Dossi's vindictive creation, is confusing rather than convincing.

Classical antiquity also overshadows Snap Theatre Company's liberal but surprisingly likeable adaptation of EM Forster's Maurice. The action circles around a chipped Grecian male statue, which balances precariously over the protagonists' heads. It's portentously lit and absurdly emblematic, but manages to convey the sense of history and society weighing down on these "unspeakables of the Oscar Wilde sort".

The production has manifold faults. Director Andy Graham betrays an alarming fondness for diagrammatical blocking that litters the stage with characters, not always to great purpose. Scene changes are even more distracting, fussily choreographed by Lisa Turner so that the actors waltz on stage with chairs.

Some of the performances are disconcerting, not least Adam Astill's Maurice, who plunges into a petulant whine every time he is reminded that he has no place in society and that even the man he loves has decided to "become normal".

It's testament to the thrilling power of Forster's belief in love that, despite these weaknesses, the play gleams with a voluptuous romanticism. It's delightful to watch Maurice and Glyn Morgan's prosaic Scudder scuppering the ridiculous concept of noble Platonic homosexuality and declaring their love for each other through a hilarious stream of euphemisms - and would Forster have asked for more than that?

`One Sez This Then the Other Sez That' to 17 Apr; `Stone Goddess', to 24 Apr - both at Tristan Bates Theatre, London WC2 (0171-240 3940); `Maurice', Bloomsbury Theatre, London WC1 (0171-388 8822) to Sat