THEATRE ROUND UP / Passion plays

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The Independent Culture
When David Mamet tried to write about feminism, he lost his cool completely and turned into a snarling reactionary; in the gentle ambience of the Richmond Theatre, Rod Beacham takes us on a subversive journey of sexual discovery and female emancipation. It's a bloodless revolution.

No Big Deal is dressed-up like an innocuous drawing-room comedy, but it wrestles with taboo. Terry Johnson was the first over the top with Dead Funny, about a husband's impotence; Beacham takes up the standard by portraying a stable marriage in which the wife, Anne, shudders every time her husband touches her.

Jan Carey plays Anne with all the wan discomfort of years of self- abnegation; Joanna Van Gyseghem (also excellent) plays her American-feminist friend, Fay, with enough glow, suss and wry, unshockable humanity to make her thoroughly credible. Fay provokes monumental changes in Anne, and Beacham has fun with suspense: will Anne dare to climb the stairs for an afternoon of love with Fay? Will her husband open the bedroom door? The play is sufficiently under control, however, that it can flirt with farce while never undermining its political, moral and emotional enquiry.

The same cannot be said of Brendan Somers's Bloody Hero, an investigation into the ethical culpability of war photographers. The subject is ripe for the picking: is it enough to bear witness to atrocities without intervening? Somers's play sets up its plot with the conventionality of The Mousetrap: in a country house, the retired photographer awaits the arrival of a journalist whose in-depth profile may revive his career; his creepy house-mate, the ex-mercenary Taunton (Peter-Hugo Daly) receives a mysterious package which he tells us is a gun; an unexpected train derailment forces the journalist's to stay overnight; the phone is cut off . . . and so on.

The play, however, falls victim to Somers's instinct for trickery, bluff and double-bluff. The plot itself is so derailed by the writing spectaculars that the line of enquiry is quite lost. If it was to become merely a burlesque, the graphic descriptions of torture (what happens when you hang a pregnant woman) should have been removed. Such things are trivialised if they become just another writing exercise, which they are if the play's main message is merely - what? That theatre audiences want nothing more than a good laugh?

A much steadier and more solid thing is David Pownall's play, Elgar's Rondo. Not that it lacks theatricality in Di Trevis's production - the unexpected arrival of the Band of the Worcestershire Regiment playing 'Land of Hope and Glory' is startlingly comic. But this is a play which states its area of concern and pursues it unflaggingly to the end: why would a composer at the height of his popularity suffer a crisis of confidence and all but renounce music?

The Rondo in Elgar's Second Symphony is identified by his admirers (John Carlisle as the robust ghost of Jaeger, James Hayes a larky George Bernard Shaw) as a taster of new greatness; the composer fears something diabolical that could take him into madness. 'It was written by a power greater than his God,' says the Jesuit priest (Ian Hughes) who was sent to save his soul but ends up rescuing his music. Elgar is caught between the terror of his own creativity and the shame of past work, which has become 'music for going over the top to'.

This terror is hinted at in the mildly pompous, buttoned-up Englishness of Alec McCowan's performance. But somehow, artistic crisis seems mere petulance and pique. Ironically, it takes a Jesuit to inject some passion into this play about one of England's more emotional composers.

'No Big Deal', to 4 June at the Orange Tree, Richmond (081-940 3633); 'Bloody Hero', to 29 May at BAC, SW11 (071-223 2223); 'Elgar's Rondo', to 2 July at the Pit, EC2 (071-638 8891)

(Photograph omitted)