Theatre: On the Fringe

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IT SEEMS fitting that the author of A Thousand Days should be called Sara Clifford. The playwright is not related to the well known publicity-seeker, but the gloss that has been put on her latest work has a sensationalist streak that would doubtless appeal to her namesake's tabloid instincts.

The poster presents a hybrid portrait of Oliver Cromwell and Tony Blair, while the programme explains that the play's title derives from the Labour leader's declaration that there were, at the last general election, only "a thousand days to prepare for a thousand years".

The programme notes point to parallels between Cromwell's speeches and Blair's millenarian rhetoric, and their dampened utopian resolve after their respective victories. This fatuous connection, simplifying both political careers, has you trembling at crassness in store, but the play soars above its sales pitch, with crisp - if unevenly delivered - dialogue propelled by a tragi-comic momentum.

The only nod to the present is the location - Islington - which in 1665 is thronging, not with champagne socialists but with God-fearing mortals trying to flee the Plague. When the white curtain - to be distractingly yanked all round Kerry Bradley's latticed wooden interior - is first pulled back, we find Richard Collyer, unkempt, on his deathbed.

This former Roundhead - who has been in hiding with his daughter and Royalist son-in-law, Thomas Clarke, since the Restoration - is racked as much by guilt as by the buboes. His ravings lead, via a satisfying sequence of overlapping flashbacks, to the act that betrayed his son and undermined the Levellers' cause: his offer of the captive Charles I to Cromwell in exchange for a public airing of egalitarian proposals - a bargain never kept.

What is fascinating about A Thousand Days is not so much the 101 snippets of historical information, but the way Clifford shows political differences at a domestic level. Timothy Block's outwardly unshakeable, inwardly riven Collyer, and James Barriscale's unsuccessful social climber, Clarke, loathe each other, yet face the prospect of a life sentence together.

This prompts an amusing hysteria, but also a melancholy that binds them. "We grow light and loose as thistledown," Richard mutters, suggesting that disappointed hopes form the commonwealth of every age. It's in these unassuming details, rather than the big picture, that Clifford displays real promise.

There is promise, too, in Claudio Macor's stage adaptation of Gabriele d'Annunzio's novel L'Innocente.

The Torchlight Theatre Company can't hope to compete with the 19th-century bourgeois splendour of Visconti's last film, and the opening society scenes are embarrassingly lightweight.

But the tale of the adulterous husband destructively jealous of his wife's lover and their child exerts a slow grip. Mark Beardsmore resembles Richard Branson on particularly smug form. Perhaps the company has hit on a unique selling-point.

'A Thousand Days', Old Red Lion, London, N1 (0171-837 7816) to Sat; 'L'Innocente', Barons Court Theatre, London, W14 (0181-932 4747) to 1 November