Theatre: On the Fringe

The Odyssey Warehouse, Croydon n Miss Julie Union Theatre n The Way of the World The Orange Tree
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The Independent Culture
IT WILL be a long time before Croydon is known as the capital of the comedy world, but the Performance Theatre Co's inventive reworking of The Odyssey puts it on the map. Homer's epic has stimulated writers from Sophocles and Euripides through to Tennyson, James Joyce and now director Rob Ballard, who has spawned the most surreal version, with scenes inspired by, appropriately enough, 2001, Red Dwarf and the facile glitz of daytime TV.

In short, this production is not about ancient Greek concepts, so it's fine if you don't know your catharsis from your elbow. Odysseus, here, is a commander on a Kubrick-style spaceship, and each encounter with a mythical monster or a trial from the gods is represented by a visit to another space-ship or planet.

The production's greatest appeal lies in the actors' manipulation of the tiny Croydon Warehouse space to give ingenious and often comic reality to episodes from the epic which might seem difficult to stage. The skilfully executed scene where Achilles kills Hector finds the combatants parrying and lunging at each other with torch beams instead of sword blades. Later, after Odysseus hurls a large bottle of whisky through the stage-roof to "the giant Cyclops", the monster's towering height is emphasised when it re-emerges as a miniature in his hand.

The Pythonesque script and the hyperbolic stage directions cut a sharp contrast with the Courageous Petticoats production of Miss Julie. Strindberg used the late 19th century's emerging trend of stark realism to portray the affair between his wilful heroine and her father's supercilious valet - and the cavernous simplicity of the Union Theatre provides an apt backdrop.

The playwright's antipathy towards the female sex comes out in the tragedy's preface, where he denounces his heroine as a half-woman - one of a poor species who would "fortunately go under". Jean the valet, by contrast, is "sexually... an aristocrat by virtue of his masculine strength", whose passion for learning and sophistication meant he had "already risen in the world". It is unfortunate then for Strindberg, that Kate Bowes's performance as Miss Julie is so obviously superior to that of Darren Hawkes as Jean. Her stage-presence engulfs his, and sometimes she is forced to act against the emotion in Strindberg's script rather than against Hawkes's performance, since he is sadly no aristocrat when it comes to conveying the passion which makes him risk his social pretensions for a midsummer night's fantasy.

Bowes ultimately succeeds in this production because of her ability to embody the playwright's conception of sex as an anarchic force, which plays on faultlines in both characters' concepts of how they are defined by class and gender. She swings effortlessly through the mercurial mood changes demanded by her character, acting with equal conviction the vulnerable openness and the violent defensiveness provoked by this cruel and bloody battle between the sexes.

That same battle is also a theme for Congreve's The Way of the World, but in this Restoration comedy now at Richmond's Orange Tree Theatre the medium is not bile and blood but verbal polish and acidic wit. Set against the confused marriage laws of 1700 - where formal commitment was a contract rather than the later holy sacrament - the play shows the bitchiness, bed-hopping, and cynical financial bartering involved in selecting a spouse.

The cast as a whole bring considerable spirit to Congreve's finely honed wit where words are weapons in conversational jousts. The jarring note in Sam Walters' production is the costuming - brightly coloured corsets and waistcoats over sterile white tops and bottoms. They strip the stage atmosphere of the subtlety it demands, spoiling an otherwise stylish and enjoyable evening.

Warehouse, Croydon (0181-680 4060) to 4 Apr; Union Theatre, London SE1 (0171-261 9876) to 20 Mar; Orange Tree, Richmond (0181-940 3633) to 17 Apr

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