Theatre: On The Fringe - Lonely Lives Union Theatre, Higher Than Babel The Bridewell

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The Independent Culture
ONE HUNDRED years ago, Gerhart Hauptmann was one of German literature's brightest stars. A leading exponent of naturalistic drama, his worth was shortly to be recognised in the form of a Nobel Prize. His work is rarely seen here these days, but a spirited adaptation of his third play at the Union Theatre suggests that his neglect is our loss.

Lonely Lives (Einsame Menschen), written in 1891, is of its time, but deliberately so. In broaching the breakdown of old certainties - the existence of God, the value of patriarchal society - it marks the passing of the 19th century and the dawning of the 20th. Looking from the other end of the century at the play's restless spirits rattling their cages, it's sobering to consider how much has changed.

The unhappy rustic dwelling of John and Kitty Vockerat seems to breed what could almost be described as a Chekhovian ruefulness for better days, although the most obvious point of comparison is Ibsen, who heavily influenced Hauptmann. There's more than a touch of A Doll's House about this marital set-up, in which a wife's devotions are repaid with scant interest by her self-preoccupied, financially troubled spouse. What gives Lonely Lives its peculiarly painful truthfulness, though, is that Kitty is too ground down for a Nora-style bid for emancipation, while John lacks Torvald's softer edges; any kindness this struggling science writer still has is lavished upon Anna, a young student whose protracted sojourn with the Vockerats causes anguish in the household.

Urban Fox's period-set production of Ruth Platt's trim adaptation creates a potent sense of gathering storm clouds, director Eddie Marsan skilfully deploying starkly different individual performances to achieve an ensemble of collective malaise. When characters enter, they often do so fleetingly. When they speak, there are hesitations and awkwardness. Instead of Teutonic gloom, we are offered cruel comedy, particularly in exchanges between Kitty (Jane Cameron) and John (Robert Woods).

With appealing understatement, Cameron shows us a loyal woman bowed down by her husband's relentless insults and Woods deftly conveys a man too guiltily smitten to accept that he is responsible for the listlessness he so despises. Ruth Platt's Anna completes the triangle, a vision of cerebral serenity who is well aware that her independence is fuelling frustrations in both partners, but who proves no more able than Kitty's conventionally minded mother (Mary Ellen Ray) to head off the torment. All in all, a bit of a find.

The discovery of the life's work of a 15th century Italian artist and all-round Renaissance polymath called Scioni provides the joist upon which the ambitious double-narrative of Andrew Caldecott QC's first play, Higher Than Babel, rests. The wife of a physicist in Nazi Germany retrieves Scioni's volume from a book-burning session. In her hands, it becomes a symbol of "good" science, the kind of humane spirit of inquiry that is being trampled underfoot by her government, which wants her husband to help it go nuclear.

Caldecott's paralleling of two fictionalised moments in time has Stoppardian daring, although the pointedness of the contrasts make the play increasingly resemble a thesis, and the vitality seeps away. Nevertheless, it's a bold debut, with much fizzy, funny dialogue, particularly early on, when Richard Wills-Cotton's wonderfully hyperactive Scioni takes on the reactionary quibbles of visitors to his garret studio. Clive Paget's clear, unfussy, largely well-acted production is well suited to a play that displays an all-too-rare taste for ideas. Though he has come to playwriting relatively late in life, Caldecott has a promising future.

`Lonely Lives' (0171-261 9876) to 20 Nov; `Higher Than Babel' (0171-936 3456) to 20 Nov

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