Theatre: Reader, you'll adore it

Jane Eyre New Ambassador's, London Peggy for You Hampstead, London Our Father Almeida, London

How could they do it? Shared Experience's version of Jane Eyre, adapted and directed by Polly Teale, is so fresh and astute that it does what even the most faithful literary adaptation rarely achieves. After nearly three hours of transfixing theatre, it guarantees that rereading the novel will be a let-down.

Teale's adaptation begins with young Jane (Penny Layden) reading of Arctic wastes and tropical warmth, symbolically shadowed by a red-dressed Harriette Ashcroft. After banishment to the Red Room, Jane submits to her guardian's authority; Ashcroft, her rebellious spirit, is left in confinement. But when Jane enters the employ of Mr Rochester (a smouldering Sean Murray), her flashes of impetuousness - followed by Layden' s cartoonish, ashamed grimaces - and her body-shuddering desires are paralleled by Ashcroft, who writhes and wails in the rickety upstairs room as Bertha. Rochester's first wife, the madwoman in the attic, becomes one with Jane's alter ego. Under lock and key, the passions torment their keeper ever more intensely.

Shared Experience's visual economy is also a playful delight. The five other actors take on the rest of the roles: Michael Matus recreates Brocklehurst as a sinister, top-hatted ringmaster, then scampers and pants as Pilot the dog; and Octavia Walter's pirouetting, precocious Adele deserves the fly-swatting disdain of Blanche Ingram (the versatile Hannah Miles). Anchoring it all is plain Jane - but Layden's commanding performance is anything but dull.

For those in the know, Peggy for You, Alan Plater's homage to the theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay, must be a nostalgic joy, the impersonation of a larger- than-life legend by Maureen Lipman in a play littered with literary in- jokes. Plater's play is a thoroughly enjoyable portrait of loveable but frustrating eccentricity. But it's also a perceptive analysis of the symbiotic relationship between writers and agents, while the confrontation between a less sympathetic Peggy and a disgruntled Northern client in the second half throws up many questions about the ideals of art and the demands of living.

Lipman is a dominant presence, but it's difficult to watch this most recognisable and dependable comic actress do her stuff without thinking "That's Maureen Lipman. She's good at mimicry, so that must be a Peggyism." And she has such a range of tics and gestures to call on from a throat- clearing growl to a lolloping walk, as if trying to flick off her flip- flops with each step. Yet Lipman also gives the rest of the cast room to shine, particularly Richard Platt as the writer driven to the unthinkable - the rejection of Peggy's patronage.

Edna O'Brien's Our Father is set during a family reunion at a big house in Seventies rural Ireland. It's reasonable to expect a tyrannous, maybe alcoholic father; a mother who's stoical, possibly religious; grown-up children, each resenting their return; and a row about land, perhaps. O'Brien obliges, and then some.

There are a few moments of effective unease. While the family sip their welcoming drinks, Jamie O'Shea (David Troughton, looking like a cross between a bulldog and a navvy) violently bundles his wife (a fragile Stella McCusker) out the back door. The children fidget in a chilly atmosphere of debilitating acceptance. Yet when Ma's let back in, they toast their parents' anniversary as if she'd just been out picking parsley.

Director Lynne Parker gets the best she can out of a blameless cast. While the (shaky) focus is on Emer, the youngest daughter, the other siblings are only required to declaim their grievances, then go to sleep or to the pub. And as Emer, the sylph-like Aisln McGuckin struggles under the burden not just of victimhood but, as a writer home from London, what can only be inferred to be her creator's autobiographical baggage.

`Jane Eyre' : New Ambassadors, WC1 (0171 836 6111) to 24 December. `Peggy for You': Hampstead, NW3 (0171 722 9301) to 15 January. ` Our Father': Almeida, N1 (0171 359 4404) to 23 December

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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