THEATRE / Present strife: Richard Loup-Nolan at Glasgow Citizens and Dundee Rep

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The Independent Culture
A couple of years after their glorious revival of John McGrath's The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, Wildcat and its director, John Bett, continue to celebrate their popular theatre roots in a new touring production of Joan Littlewood's 1963 Theatre Workshop classic, Oh What a Lovely War, just opened on the main stage of Glasgow's Citizens Theatre.

Bett takes a typically direct approach to staging one of British theatre's most influential works. Rather than adapting the play to his own ends by, for example, moving its seaside music hall to Scotland or 'updating' the text, he leaves the goalposts where they were and attempts to shoot straight.

The pierrot costumes of 1963 have been replaced by brightly coloured mock-military fatigues but this is mere stylistic modification. As the leery compere of the evening's 'War Game', Paul Morrow grabbed the attention of a lively first-night audience packed with school parties, quickly dispelling any doubts about Lovely War's accessibility in 1994.

The rest of the cast clearly relish the technical challenge of Littlewood's work, which demands frequent doubling and quicksilver changes of performance style. These transitions are not easy and by no means all the cast are comfortable with their accents, but Kern Falconer's squirming cartoon of a French general is almost worth the price of a ticket on its own.

It's a pity that the documentary elements of the play (dates, casualty figures, photos etc) which should provide a devastating background commentary, are denied their full eloquence by Allan Ross's conservative design. The virtues of the production though, such as Rab Handleigh's crisp and witty music, far outweigh its current defects.

Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop chose to stand outside the experience of the First World War to express outrage at its waste of humanity. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck took the other approach, personifying in the Joad family the struggles of millions of Americans driven from the Midwest by the Depression.

Frank Galati won Broadway awards for his 1990 adaptation of the novel, and, in a co-production with Dundee Rep, Scotland's 7:84 have a similar intent. Galati's pared-down version of the Joads' trek towards the promised land of California is a powerful piece of naturalistic story-telling. It packs few surprises in its jalopy, deriving its impact instead from the cumulative detail of the Joad family's disintegration under the pressures of homelessness and unemployment.

The designer, Mark Leese, provides Iain Reekie's cast with a versatile and evocative platform for some fine performances. The Oklahoma accent is never a problem, and some of the action sequences are frighteningly credible. The preoccupation with real water becomes a distracting special effect but does not damage the integrity of a production in which Anne Kidd and Tom McGovern stand out as Ma Joad and the lapsed preacher, Casy.

In the opening scenes, Casy explains the loss of his inner certainty by saying that 'the spirit' is no longer in him or in the people. It's easy enough for a contemporary audience to identify with this sentiment, but not so easy to find the spiritual successors to Steinbeck or Littlewood, whom the theatre so desperately needs.

'Oh What a Lovely War' to 2 April at the Citizens (041-429 0022); then tours (details on 041-221 6789)

'The Grapes of Wrath' on tour in England and Scotland to 28 May (details on 041-331 2219)