THEATRE / Rock of its age: Sarah Hemming fails to be converted by Godspell; plus The Bassett Table at the New End

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The Independent Culture
With flares and platforms back on the streets, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to resurrect the 'Jesus Rock' musical. And here it is, Godspell, looking as bizarre and flimsy as the repro crocheted waistcoats we once thought were so hip.

The programme notes to Lindsay Dolan's production in the Barbican Hall explain that this version seeks to reflect the changed ethos of Nineties Britain by setting the show, flares and all, in a rock arena, rather than in the circus-cum-playground of the original 1971 production. In practice, this means that the cast emerge out of the mist to line up behind microphones for the opening number and are illuminated by wheeling spotlights. Thereafter, the concept is abandoned: the show appears to be no more set on a rock stage than in Buckingham Palace - it just rumbles along, with no coherent context to explain why all these frantically zany young people are bopping and jigging their way through a jolly, painting-by-numbers version of St Matthew's Gospel.

Uprooted, the show looks desperately thin. The cast work hard, coming up with every trick in the rehearsal book to animate the telling of the parables (including staging one as an episode of Blind Date), but the result is rather like watching some odd version of a nativity play, without the basic requisite of maternal or paternal devotion. It's not helped by the fact that Andy Crane, the blond and denimed children's TV personality signed up to play Jesus, is strikingly uncharismatic and bland. 'If your right eye offends you, pluck it out,' he cries, cheerfully, as if inviting a group of under-fives to meet some new cuddly character. Gemma Craven, singing 'Day by Day', manages to evince sincerity but, all in all, this was a show in which novelty value and innocence, absent in this production, played a large part. Remember stripey tank-tops - some Seventies fashion items were best left quietly in the bottom drawer.

Company of Clerks' revival of Suzannah Centlivre's early 18th-century comedy The Basset Table at the New End Theatre, Hampstead, has rather more flesh on the bones. Centlivre's moral fable enjoys up- ending the sexual stereotypes: this is the story of a roguish, gambling flirt who needs to be brought to heel, but the renegade is, in this case, a woman - Lady Reveller (played with splendid energy and glee by Carol Hoit).

Lady Reveller has taken up residence in her strait-laced uncle's house, where she hosts all-night gambling parties, making free with men's heart-strings and purse-strings with equal dexterity and relish. Her behaviour is the despair of her long-suffering admirer, Lord Worthy (a delightfully po-faced Richard Pocock), and, since virtue must triumph, Lady Reveller is eventually tri cked into marriage with Worthy - a pity, as she is by far the most diverting character on the stage.

The play's strongest point is also its weakest - it is stuffed with sub- plots, each of them revealing various layers of hypocrisy and moral laxness on the part of surrounding characters. Most interesting of these are Mrs Sago, a shopkeeper's wife equally addicted to social climbing and gambling, and Valeria, the testy uncle's science-mad daughter, whose idea of bliss is to dissect a freshly extracted tapeworm, to the distraction of all those bent on interesting her in romance. But there is so much going on in the play that it staggers under the weight of its own intricacy and never really has the time to explore the sub-plots - particularly that of Valeria, a fascinating character for a 20th-century audience.

Under Guy Retallack's direction, the cast compensate for this rather clogged feeling by performing with great speed and emphasis. Sometimes this is entertaining, occasionally it just looks a bit desperate. It is a handsome production, though, lavishly designed, and performed with wit and energy. One can't help feeling, however, as Lady Reveller is dispatched into matrimony and boring good behaviour, that the devil has all the best tunes (a worry that Godspell does nothing to dispel).

'Godspell' runs to 30 Aug (071-638 8891); 'The Basset Table' runs to 29 Aug (071-794 0022).

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