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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker