Theatre: On the Fringe

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The Independent Culture
Svejk Gate Theatre n room to Let The Chelsea Centre

IT'S NOT often that you see a cat singing in a canary-cage, or the Virgin Mary giving birth to a full-grown man. Mind you, it's not often that you come across a character who happily signs confessions to crimes he hasn't committed, battles to stay in an asylum, and goes to war when rheumatism has temporarily confined him to a bath-chair.

And yet Jaroslav Hasek's absurd, exasperating creation turns idiocy into an artform and raises fundamental and telling questions about power. He is, of course, the infuriating picaresque hero, Svejk.

In 1928, Erwin Piscator staged Svejk using conveyor belts, film and animated cartoons. Giles Cadle's elegant set relies more on suggestion: a catwalk covered in patches of red crushed-velvet divides the audience, while small stages at either end and a series of trap-doors reveal the soldiers, policemen, doctors, lunatics and animals who encounter Svejk's ramblings.

Martin Savage perfectly embodies his spirit with a button-eyed gaze and comically innocent gawp. The rest of the cast, under Dalia Ibelhauptaite's assured direction, leaps energetically into creating the absurd universe that erupts around him. Sally Hawkins makes an amusingly smooth metamorphosis from playing the bitchy mistress of Svejk's employer to acting as a lively mongrel. Roy Smiles epitomises a James Bond villain with his silky-voiced insanity, while Ben Price is a sympathetic but occasionally flimsy straight- man to the play's anti-heroism hero.

The chief question about Svejk is to what extent is his idiocy an act? Savage maintains the ambiguity between genuine idiot and calculating genius, allowing the audience to get down to the really interesting question of why a man who does whatever anyone tells him manages to beat the system. Is it because power needs fear to show its strength? Is it because a constantly rambling mind protects him from ever being able to follow someone else's agenda?

Whatever his formula, he could probably help the couple in Paul Tucker's black comedy Room To Let. It's bad enough for Eddie when the lodger arrives with an Andy Williams album and a wig straight out of Battersea Dogs' Home, but when Roger whips the wig off and reveals he's the son Eddie abandoned along with his marriage 25 years beforehand, a sinister power- game begins.

Grahame Fox, as Roger, maintains the tragi-comic facade of the cruel adult who will never forget he's an abandoned child. On Ruth Paton's set - where claustrophobia oozes out of the run-down sofas - he plays with the couple's stupidity till they break. Peter Hamilton, as Eddie, pulls off the paradoxical feat of giving an intelligent portrayal of a stupid slob. But it is Karen E Jones, as Janet, who is the star of the production, blossoming from fat, lardish lump into siren and back again in a play which digs darkly below the surface of how to manipulate someone with terminally low self-esteem and a compelling desire to holiday at Butlins.

`Svejk', (0171-229 0706) to 5 Jun; `Room to Let' (0171-352 1967) to 22 May