Theatre: Plenty of precious metal, not enough alchemy

IN A brief career, Matthew Warchus has already staged two Ben Jonson plays; this week he makes his National Theatre debut with a third. Volpone, Jonson's satirical masterpiece, is packed to the gills with cozeners, connivers and cheats driven by demented greed, and it's one of the funniest, most savage plays in the language.

Despite the adage that the devil always gets the best tunes, it's quite a feat to pull off a play stuffed with entirely reprehensible characters. The pleasure derives from watching the brazen single-mindedness of this bunch of obsessives. No one in this play has the luxury of a mixed emotion, notably Stephen Boxer's fastidious vulture of a lawyer and Robin Soans's Corvino, whose pinched voice alone tells us everything about a man eaten up with cupidity. In effect, though, it's a two-man show for Volpone who, with his parasite companion Mosca, deludes a succession of sycophants into believing they will inherit his ever-increasing fortune. The plotters are in love with the game itself as well as the gain.

Michael Gambon as Volpone switches between lying in his fur-covered bed in a mangy mob-cap looking for all the world like a slack-jawed, near-death Joan Sims, and bellowing back to life, wearing vanity like a trophy, his enormous, grasping hands fumbling in his groin. Simon Russell Beale is excellent as Mosca, leading with his chin, eyes ever-watchful as the duo's increasingly bold schemes take wing. The pair of them could be brothers, but Gambon, the elder of the two, strangely allows his sidekick to run the show.

Richard Hudson's magnificent, animalistic costumes speak volumes, nowhere more than in his blazing, double-panniered creation for Lady Would-Be (Cheryl Campbell in twin-chimney hair-do, devouring the comedy as if her life depended upon it). His black wooden set spins round on the Olivier's giant revolve to revealheavy doorways and dark passageways. It's a smart idea, complementing the play's chicanery and intricate plot twists, and focusing attention on Volpone's shimmering gold, kept safely under the mattress in true miserly fashion.

It also creates problems. As the characters rush about the perimeters of the set, you feel that things are happening at the periphery rather than at the heart of the play. Pace is everything, but the evening never truly takes off. It should propel itself with the headlong energy of an American comedy such asThe Front Page, which has similarly hectic plotting and insanely driven characters. Warchus has been side-tracked by his over-attention to detail. You long for him to give his cast the famous note, "act faster". At the moment the production lacks a truly exultant feeling. It may yet arrive though.

Meredith Willson's one-hit wonder The Music Man beat West Side Story to win Best Musical at the Tony awards in 1957. Like the original, the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre revival stars a first time song'n'dance man, Brian Cox, better known for less toe-tapping work as the lead in Titus Andronicus and King Lear.

Music Man's score is terrific. It boasts a boldly unaccompanied opening number, barber-shop quartets and two massive hits, "76 Trombones" and '' 'Til There Was You"; but as director George Abbott said, the three things you have to get right are "the book, the book, and the book" - and this one is pure hokum. Travelling con-artist Professor Harold Hill pitches up in River City, Iowa and persuades the townsfolk to set up a boys' band complete with expensive instruments, lessons and uniforms. Having pocketed the money he will skip town before anyone twigs his A-grade scam.

Cox has enough sense of rhythm to make it through the show, but his voice is thin. Director Ian Talbot has allowed him to coast on charm, a leer and a wink. He isn't helped by the casting of the highly-experienced Liz Robertson as his co-star. She gives the same performance she gave in the recent The King and I. Why? Marian is the quintessential ingenue role and needs to be sung by a sweet lyric soprano. Whenever Robertson shifts into her matronly head voice, all sense of expression vanishes. The design is fun and, thanks to sterling efforts by the supporting cast, the show survives. Just. There are rumours of a West End run. They cannot be serious.

A sense of deja vu hovers over Burning Blue, a US navy mystery. Interrogation scenes are intercut with flashbacks of male horseplay, self-discovery and frustrated love. Gradually, a strange thought steals over you: this is Equus with wings. They even share the same designer, John Napier.

Both plays are about sexuality and denial, but where Shaffer created a highly theatrical framework to beef up a flimsy philosophical premise, D M W Greer's urgent semi-autobiographical address has plenty of beefcake in a strong cast, but lacks a coherent dramatic metaphor. Like Mojo at the Royal Court, it's a play that wants to be a film. Think Top Gun meets Witness for the Prosecution and you're halfway there.

The surprise victim of a gay spin on the McCarthyite "are you now or have you ever been?", Lt Daniel Lynch finds that his life, career and friendships come under fire when he is spotted dancing in a Hong Kong gay club. His dancing partner, Lt Matt "Iron Man" Blackwood, is married, and the ensuing witch-hunt tears apart the tight-knit group of servicemen and their wives.

Greer undercuts the horrors with neat one-liners, working a big laugh on the apparently standard "Do you intend to engage in sex with foreign nationals, communists or small animals?" Sadly, John Hickok's production cannot disguise the lurches in tone between genuine sentiment and unearned sentimentality.

Yet for all its faults, a passion burns through the play. Its gays-in-the-military tag actually does the play an odd disservice. As the final scenes prove, Burning Blue is actually a highly charged play about divided loyalties and the demands of friendship.

Red Roses and Petrol at the Tricycle is another first play, this time from novelist and short-story writer Joseph O'Connor. This touching drama of an Irish family wake is beautifully played and shot through with hilarious lines, releasing tension and illuminating character at a stroke. However his excellent dialogue rests on a short-story structure and the play ends with its ideas unresolved. O'Connor still has a way to go before he can match his impressive literary skill.

'Volpone': Olivier, SE1, 0171 928 2252. 'The Music Man': Open Air, NW1, 0171 486 2431. 'Burning Blue': Haymarket, SW1, 0171 930 8800. 'Red Roses': Tricycle, NW6, 0171 328 1000, ends Sat.

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