Theatre: On The Fringe

sitting pretty chelsea centre n seven brides for seven brothers bac n leave to remain bac
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The Independent Culture
YES, IT must help having Maureen Lipman and Jack Rosenthal as your parents, but, with Sitting Pretty, Amy Rosenthal proves she's got talent enough to stand on her own two feet. This is an assured piece of writing, its confidence reflected both in its emotional range - it encompasses the preoccupations of youth and middle-age - and in the unapologetic quaintness of its style, a gentle blend of the witty and the poignant.

Dumpy fiftysomething Nancy, a recently fired typist, is advised by her twitchy sister Nina, an art gallery tour guide, to shake off her depression, stop munching pickled onions and start afresh. Through a combination of chance and misunderstanding, she ends up as an evening-class life-model, posing for the students of a rakish, creatively blocked painter called Philip, who has decided to employ wrinklier women in a bid to avoid after- hours entanglements.

Rosenthal can do the breezily sharp patter of sitcom fusspots and neurotics as though to the manner born. The 10 characters are loosely but vigorously drawn; all are perkily served by Jacob Murray's production, which builds up nicely to the awkward moment when Yvonne D'Alpra's bashful Nancy unravels herself for the first time. Her recumbent posture becomes redefined by the gaze of others - a symptom of depression becomes a symbol of self- possession. The play acquires a more profound resonance, as Nancy's new- found contentment tests the superficial assurance of her sister, still in mourning for a relationship that ended in her twenties. An old head sits on Rosenthal's young shoulders, one which knows that time does not heal all wounds, and that those who offer advice may be the ones who need it most.

Over the past three years, the BAC Christmas show has become a pretty reliable yardstick by which to judge the seasonal curmudgeon. Phil Willmott's production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is another technicolour blaze of vivacity from start to finish.

With the 1850s Midwest setting ingeniously suggested by the timber frontage of the in-the-round seating, a cast of 34 piles in and out of the remaining space. It's not exactly a gentle tale - the Pontipee brothers, a lonesome bunch of backwoodsmen, follow the advice of their eldest, Adam, and abduct a town lass apiece for marital purposes. Given the London Underground- style congestion, the choreography inevitably feels cramped. That injury is so narrowly avoided is a source of continual wonder, and helps to add a much-needed sense of suspense to a musical which you always know is going to sacrifice its darker, satirical side (wives are little more than hostages) to an apple-pie resolution (the willing hostages are pretty enough to call the shots). Among the vocally fine leads, Kieran Creggan's charming chauvinist Adam and Fiona Benjamin's Milly help lassoe wandering attention with real strength of feeling.

In another studio in the same building, Leon London's Leave to Remain grimly illustrates the deficient assistance we give to asylum-seekers in this country. Based on over two years of research, the piece observes the fraught interaction between six refugees in a Camden hostel. Impoverished circumstances, combined with drawn-out applications procedures, take their toll on frayed nerves; in this sour environment (drably realised by designer Sarah Blenkinsop), language barriers provide the only form of privacy, and sullenness becomes a habit.

Avoiding agitprop, London makes a thuggish Kosovan called Bashkim (a wonderfully stony-faced Alex McSweeney) the principal source of tension and interest: if you're treated like a dog, why not behave like one, he explains as he stirs up trouble.

The dialogue is often rudimentary, its delivery perhaps too faithfully rendered as "halting" by the international cast, but a flavour of the half-life that awaits the dispossessedhere is caught well enough.

Dominic Cavendish

`Sitting Pretty' (0171-352 1967) to Sat; `Seven Brides for Seven Brothers' to 15 Jan, and `Leave to Remain' to 12 Dec (0171-223 2223)

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