THEATRE /Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, RNT

It boasts the perfect pairing of Simon Russell Beale and Adrian Scarborough, but does the revival of Tom Stoppard's first hit deserve the hype?
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The Independent Culture
''Pregnant, pregnant replies, mystic allusions, mistaken identities, arguing his father is his mother, that sort of thing; intimations of suicide... paranoia, myopia; daydreaming, hallucinations; stabbing his elders, abusing his parents, insulting his lover, and appearing hapless in public - knock- kneed, droop-stockinged and sighing like a lovesick schoolboy, which at his age is coming on a bit strong.'' It might not get you an A-level, but for its rapidity and comprehensive refusal to be colluded by sentiment, the above report on Hamlet certainly has its charms. What gives it added savour in Matthew Francis' Lyttelton revival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is that it is delivered by Simon Russell Beale.

For some years now, this gifted actor has had a date with destiny to take on the role of Hamlet - a number of the performances he has given (Konstantin in The Seagull, Oswald in Ghosts etc) offering tasty intimations of the Black Prince he would one day become. Indeed, he was actually scheduled to assume the part for Sam Mendes earlier this year, an enterprise delayed (one guess is) by the Ralph Fiennes Hamlet. Impersonating Guildenstern now in a Stoppard play that takes place on the sidelines of Hamlet and gives centre-stage status to two of its minor characters brings Russell Beale closer to the fated role only in the most ironic and tantalising of ways.

Time is kinder to some jokes than others. One gag that seems to have really come into its own, earning a loud laugh on press night, was Rosencrantz's line: ''You can't treat royalty like people with normal perverted desires.'' It's sad to say that reasonably loud laughter greeted much of the rest of the play too. For this reviewer, though, Stoppard's tricksy presentation of the eponymous duo as a pair of bewildered Beckettian innocents moving to their doom on the conveyor belt of Shakespeare's plot feels more than ever like a good idea for a sketch laboriously extended to a three-act drama.

This is no fault of the acting. As the Player, Alan Howard turns in a diverting portrait of a raddled old pro, his smug discoursings on the tricks of the trade, such as stage-death, further rattling the central pair with their metaphysical implications. Both dumpy and fair-haired, with modern college scarves gracing their Elizabethan costumes, Russell Beale and Adrian Scarborough make an endearing double-act, the former more speculative and liable to get worked up into peeved indignation at the stolidity of the other. ''Pragmatism?" - Russell Beale lets out a wonderfully contentious snort when his theorisings about direction of wind relative to position of sun meet with the commonsense suggestion ''Why don't you go and have a look?".

The production fields some good ideas. Toward the end, the sides of Lez Brotherston's set close in so that Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's relegation to off-stage character status looks, aptly, like a treacherous moving of the goal posts in some game over which they have no control. I was less sure about the value of showing up the shipboard scene recessed behind the final tableau from Hamlet or of spelling out a fate that has been all too exhaustively forecast for us by having two bundles dropped down like hanged bodies. ''You don't have to flog it to death,'' snaps Guildenstern at one point. There are times when you wish that both play and production had followed this advice.

In rep at the Lyttelton Theatre, London, SE1 (0171-928 2252)