THEATRE / Revenge comedy: Paul Taylor reviews A Handful of Dust at the Palace Theatre, Watford

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The Independent Culture
A balding man with a moustache is gambolling like a lamb in circles about the stage. The jacket of his suit is tugged down round his shoulders like an evening stole and he is shouting 'Silly old tart, silly old tart' in a brat-like sing-song at a woman who looks very far from charmed at these antics. What's going on here? A tragic case of regression? Or is the actor playing the part of an actual child?

Graham Greene's populous, picaresque Travels with My Aunt became a theatrical hit in an adaptation where all the roles, including the aunt, were taken by four men in suits. If Mike Alfreds' new version of A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh's poised and poisonous revenge for marital betrayal, doesn't go to quite such self-denying extremes (there are five men and five women in the cast), the method, as illustrated in the example above, is certainly out to make similar demands on the imagination. This is another adaptation that breaks free from literalism to become the salutary stylistic antithesis of the Merchant-Ivory film approach.

Dressed exclusively in shades of grey, the cast half-act, half-narrate the piece, and, working on the one elegant but severely spare set (grey, wood-panelled wall; a few chairs), they have to evoke everything from the high society gossip-network in Thirties London to death by drowning in the Amazonian falls.

The technique of the book is cinematic, though, rather than theatrical - not just in the brilliant cross-cutting, but in the scenes where the focus is suddenly widened to pick up a hitherto invisible and devastating detail, such as the worthless lover's presence in the bedroom when Lady Brenda is phoning her husband. This is not an effect you could recreate easily on stage.

Where a theatrical version scores well is in conveying the feel of social ritual and in being able to show as simultaneous things that would have to occur in shuttling sequence in a novel or a film. Consequently, Alfreds' version can give an especially bleak impression that Tony, stranded and sick in Brazil at one side of the stage, and Brenda, stranded without money or friends in London at the other, are suffering comparable fates. There are savages at home, it's clear, as well as abroad.

The cast perform with splendid comic attack and versatility, especially Annabelle Apsion, who gives Brenda a retrousse pertness, a pinched, posh, manipulative bray, and, towards the end, a degree of pathos. As her cuckolded husband, Tim Dutton exudes disappointed decency, while making it clear why she sought diversions elsewhere. The evening is much too rhythmically unvaried, though, and the punctuation, by freeze-frame, lighting switch and incidental music, starts to pall. The real challenge for this starvation-rations technique, of course, would be the decadent lushness of Brideshead Revisited.

Watford Palace (0923-225671)

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