THEATRE: On The Fringe

dick barton and the curse of the pharaoh's tomb croydon warehouse n the old curiosity shop southwark playhouse n belgrade trilogy tristan bates
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``SEX, IN the active sense, plays no part in the Barton adventures. This provision does not of course rule out the possibility of a decent marriage (not involving Dick personally) taking place." You could say that Phil Wilmott has obeyed this stern rule of conduct, laid down by a 1947 BBC memo, in his deeply enjoyable sequel to last year's Dick Barton - Special Agent, which successfully reactivated the postwar tea time radio hero for on-stage escapades.

There is no sex as such in The Curse of the Pharaoh's Tomb, but there's enough puerile smut to make it clear that Wilmott's dastardly game is nothing less than the traversal of a floss-thin tightrope between tribute and travesty.

There may well have been an episode involving the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti (here retitled "Nefatartie") in the original series, but it's doubtful whether her reincarnated form would have been in hot pursuit of the ruby she once bestowed on a prodigiously endowed lover called "the Collosus of Cartouche", or indeed that she would have met her end "impaled on a jewel-encrusted mummified phallus". What Wilmott does so well with his funny pastiche script is to show how the innocent template contained its salacious opposite.

We laugh at the witty, simplistic evocation of ration-book Britain, where the only problem with the world is "foreigners", and where fair-minded, quick-thinking ex-public school chaps will always overcome "the forces of Efil". But in Ted Craig's amateurish production lies the reason why Barton can look ludicrously contrived imminent deaths in the face - the only enemy he truly fears is his own desire.

Clive Carter's Barton is a wonderfully lock-jawed derring-doer, keeping his cool beneath a swaddling of trilby and scarf-stuffed mac. Also boasting ripping performances from Sophie-Louise Dann as Nefatartie and William Oxborrow as the BBC announcer, this deserves a life way beyond the ramshackle Croydon Warehouse.

What kind of thing is Sally Brass, Richard Swiveller wonders in Stephen Sharkey's new adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop - "a mummy come to life from the museum, who needs a top-up with embalming fluid," he decides. Presumably, the image is supposed to conjure up a decrepit and foul-smelling personage; Erica Whyman's production supplies a youngish man in a dress.

Casting weaknesses are not the only problem with this uneven dramatisation, but if it were better played, it might be much more than just a mild curiosity in a Dickensian stretch of Southwark.

There are a few performances that blaze: Jonathan Coyne is an impishly villainous Quilp, terrorising the front rows, while Darren Strange provides a warmth as the burbling Swiveller. For a moment, Diveen Henry's jittery turn as Sally's brutalised, desanitised "slavey" locates the full pathos of Dickens' blackly comic creation, but, after two and half hours of being fed crusts of scenes, it's impossible to shed a tear for her poor little Nell, the brow-mopping protagonist.

Another disappointment. Biljana Srbljanovic's Belgrade Trilogy apparently ran for two years in the Serbian capital prior to the NATO bombings. A cynic would argue that that's because it makes the fate of those young Serbs who emigrated in the mid-Nineties look even worse than that of those who stayed behind. In terms of drama, there is little in this unhappy triptych to explain any demand for tickets. It's ordinary. And yet - giving the prevailing demonisation of Srbljanovic's people, ordinary is probably better than nothing.

`Dick Barton' (0181-680 4060) to 30 Jan; `The Old Curiosity Shop' (0171-620 3494) to 15 Jan; `Belgrade Trilogy' (0171-240 6283) to Sat