Theatre: On the Fringe

In the hit-and-miss world of the fringe, a play can quickly take on a funereal aspect, snuffing out the vital essence it seeks to illuminate. When it does, the title of the artist Charlotte Salomon's magnum opus Life? or Theatre? - currently on display at the Royal Academy - might almost serve as a tailor-made rebuke.

The German Jewish artist was killed in Auschwitz at the age of 26 having left behind her selection of almost 800 gouaches, subtitled "a play with music", and clearly never intended a facetious opposition between the two words. Judi Herman, the author of Saving Charlotte - a timely play based on Salomon's life's work running at the Bridewell - reads that "or" less as a choice between "the real" and "the imaginary" than as a hesitation, a nagging doubt.

If ambiguity is central to the artist's paintings, that doesn't come across sufficiently vividly in Herman's dedicated dramatisation, though. Saving Charlotte feels like an intriguing footnote to the exhibition rather than a major event in its own right erring too much on the side of conventional biodrama.

What you get is an episodic sequence of events, sketching the relations between the alter-ego Lotte and her family in Berlin before, and in the south of France during, the war. Herman seems sure of the path her chronological construction forges: namely, that through the work precipitated by her impending demise, Salomon affirmed a love of life that had been absent from the suicidal female line of her family.

Herman dresses the piece in the accoutrements of a singspiel - with on- stage piano accompaniments arranged by Wendy Gadian, bursts of song and stray comic rhyming couplets. The lighting makes impressive use of the three colours to which Salomon restricted herself - red, yellow and blue - while the carefully arranged vista of ominously inviting window-frames and spartan furniture creates an expressionistic mood that is reinforced by the flurry of scenes, the doubling and quadrupling of parts by the four-strong cast, and the detached manner in which those roles are played.

But this is experimentation-by-numbers. The layering of scene on scene does not create a fluid interior landscape, but rather a jumble of incidents and characters who seem more obviously two-dimensional than their painted counterparts. "Instead of taking your life, describe your life" is a conclusion we are presented with, rather than arrive at.

In some ways, Dominic Hill's beautiful revival of Michel Tremblay's The House Among the Stars over at the Orange Tree in Richmond offers a consolatory point of comparison. "We are badly made" someone remarks, alluding to the way things have a habit of overwhelming us, but it's an accusation that could be levelled at its Canadian creator.

Members of successive generations of the same family congregate at a remote old log cabin in Quebec via a triple time scheme that juxtaposes 1910 with unspecified years in the 1950s and 1990s. As a theatrical device, it has a memerising effect - characters bicker and make up, echoing and talking across these other selves; a sort of haunting across the years.

But the earnest talk about past, present and future that Tremblay orchestrates as a means of suggesting cycles of renewal and reinvention comes to feel overloaded with import. Only in the still, pregnant pauses when the strong ensemble gazes sadly into the orange of a sunset or the dim white of star- light to eerie violin scrapings does the conscious theatricality gain a life of its own.

`Saving Charlotte', Bridewell Theatre, London EC4, to 21 Nov (0171-936 3456); `The House Among the Stars', Orange Tree, Richmond, in rep to 5 Dec (0181-940 3633)

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