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Theatre: On The Fringe

The Humorous Lieutenant BAC n Cosi New End Theatre Nixon's Nixon The Bridewell n Mainstream The Bush
THERE IS truly deep madness on display in John Fletcher's The Humorous Lieutenant, in which a lieutenant with venereal disease drinks a magic potion and falls in love with the King. The elderly King is trying to inflict his wrinkled desires on the young Celia, but finds he hasn't got the Michael Douglas touch as she rebuffs him in favour of his son Demetrius. Demetrius himself is fighting in the war his father is waging over land inherited from Alexander the Great. His fellow officers are worried he is more concerned with Cupid's arrows than the enemy's.

Fletcher was a contemporary of Shakespeare and left behind more plays (57) than anybody else writing at the time. Unfortunately, even in the case of play collections, size doesn't count, and most people have concluded that Fletcher's main writing achievement derives from his collaborations with playwrights such as Beaumont and Jonson.

Even so, Philip Wilson has produced a lively and enjoyable evening, which highlights the positive aspects of the writing. In the intimacy of BAC's Studio II the cast parade around on a chessboard-style floor and debate issues of love, honour, and war with the confidence of the trumpets that herald the first act. Victoria Woodward's virtuous Celia glows with passion and Duncan Henderson is a jaunty successor to the comic soldiers who have crossed stages since Plautus.

Juggling actors' egos is a trick all directors have to learn, but Lewis in Cosi is faced with tougher demands than most. What do you do, for example, with an actor whose idea of fun is setting fire to five cats and watching them zip around like mobile mewing bonfires? Full Circle Theatre takes Cosi fan tutte and shows how seven patients from a mental institution transform it in rehearsal. This curious blend of high culture, psychotic interpretations of Mozart, and left-wing politics is set against the backdrop of Seventies Melbourne. Lewis, the director, is an ardent left-wing idealist who finds his loyalties increasingly torn between going on anti-Vietnam demonstrations and directing at least one individual who tends towards a pyromaniac's notion of bringing the house down. He sticks with the opera, and finds that virtue brings its own chaotic punishments.

Unfortunately, it all jars because director Tim Roseman has mistakenly encouraged caricatures of the mentally ill rather than examining their subtleties. For example, Chelsea Blake as Cherry rolls her eyeballs, bares her teeth and wields her flick-knife for easy laughs, but although she is an able comic actress, her performance carries the unhappy implication that psychosis is simply the scary big brother of stupidity. Only Michael Leslie, as a recluse in schoolboy shorts, and Stan Pretty, as the Mozart fan with a tendency towards toddler temper-tantrums, manage to invest their roles with the dignity and credibility that might eventually make this play worth watching.

Two plays that survived Edinburgh have now resurfaced in London. The Independent has reviewed both of these already, but it is impossible not to urge audiences to make their way to Nixon's Nixon, a truly funny and excellent evening which imagines the conversation that might have taken place between Nixon and Kissinger the night before Nixon's resignation. Then, once you've sorted your political sensibilities out, get personal with David Greig's Mainstream: a minimalist meditation on modern relationships, which rings all the bells while avoiding all the cliches.

`The Humorous Lieutenant' (0171-223 2223) to 26 Sept; `Cosi' (0171-794 0022) to 3 Oct; `Nixon's Nixon' (0171-936 3456) to 25 Sept; `Mainstream' (0181-743 3388) to 2 Oct