THEATRE / Shirley Valentine with depth: Shades - Albery; Columbus - Barbican

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The Independent Culture
PAULINE COLLINS and the director Simon Callow pull off another unlikely success with Shades, the new play by Sharman Macdonald, author of When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout. It's a neat progression from Shirley Valentine. Both plays offer a wonderful role of a middle-aged mother getting ready to go out into the world in Act One and doing so in Act Two; but this one is in a quite different key.

The shades of the title that darken the lights in Pearl's life are those of her husband, Tommy, who died aged 38, leaving her with a son. Now 10, Alan (Matthew Steer) helps to fasten up his mother's sparkly black dress, dances with her (standing on her toes) and corrects her make-up. 'It's as well one of us has got taste,' he says. For his mum is going out on a date. The claustrophobic first act unfolds slowly - too slowly - in front of the dressing table mirror, lace curtains and chintzy lampshades that revolve unobtrusively in Christopher Morley's set of a 1950s bedroom. Outside, a storm threatens to ruin Pearl's night out. Inside, Alan's curiosity about his father threatens to undermine her resolve even more.

Not the least of Macdonald's achievements is making 90 per cent of her first act a conversation between a mother and her young son. We know Pauline Collins can do this sort of thing before breakfast, but Matthew Steer, running round in shorts and striped tie, brings off an unusual equality. She needs him as much as he needs her.

Pearl tempers the longings of middle age with a matter-of-fact Glaswegian charm. ('There's nothing subtle about this perfume.') No one is quicker on a cue than Pauline Collins. As she bunches her shoulders or crinkles her nose, her retorts flash back with a clarity and bounce that never turns hard.

At the nightclub a young couple dancing upstage counterpoint the trickier courtship between Pearl and her date, Callum. A towering, moustachioed figure, he is played with a careful muscular grace by James Cosmo. As they rock 'n' roll, Cosmo moves Collins with the bullish dignity of a toreador. But when the scene narrows into a slow little shuffle, he presses his large hands tightly across her dimpled cheeks and questions her about the very same thing as Alan. Her husband. 'I'm always having to remember. Pulling things out,' she protests. 'What's the use?'

Moments like this have a terrific impact in Simon Callow's exemplary production. He sharpens and shapes the intense melancholy that was suggested from the opening blast of the saxophone as the curtain rose; and Collins is superb, adding a classical depth to the endearing ordinariness of Shirley Valentine. The only things that don't work are the conversations off-stage, which are inaudible.

After Two Shakespearean Actors and Some Americans Abroad, two plays where characters find themselves severely tested after crossing the Atlantic, the American playwright Richard Nelson chooses one who finds himself severely tested before crossing the Atlantic. Nelson takes a characteristically ironic view of his hero, or anti-hero, in Columbus and the Discovery of Japan.

His Columbus is a conman, charlatan and snob, who picks up royal funding in January 1492 on the back of a fraudulent story about an ancient pilot and his map. Not that the royals are the only possible source of income. Some wealthy Jews are keen to use the expedition as a cover for selling their land before their feared expulsion.

The danger in setting up an epic story about an inveterate liar is that we can find ourselves at sea sooner than he does. What does Columbus want? What makes him tick? Jonathan Hyde plays Columbus in that hyper-energetic RSC style, hands moving so much and so fast that they threaten to break into sign language. As he hurries from Seville to Palos to Santa Fe in search of the elusive ducats, the character proves harder to nail than the money.

His scenes with the wealthy land- owners, his mistress Beatrice (Jane Gurnett), the ship's captain (Christopher Benjamin) and the poet (Michael Higgs) throw up issues of social rank, maps, poetry and discovery that are never pursued. Epic plays thrive when they hold a tight focus on an ideal or a moral argument. Columbus fails to discover its theme. The sly informality, the intrusive details and petty vanities that made Two Shakespearean Actors so likeable, overwhelm the subject.

The Santa Maria doesn't set sail for more than two hours. (This is a three-and-a-half-hour play.) Tim O'Brien's design keeps returning the actors to downstage taverns, ante-rooms and dinner tables, which feel poky. In Act Three, when the ships are at sea, the action cross-cuts between the interiors of the cabins (still more sitting at tables). On deck the company tilts a little from side to side. But otherwise, under John Caird's prosaic direction, the evening remains land-locked.

Halfway through Les Eumenides, the final play in the Greek cycle Les Atrides, a woman fainted from the heat and ushers carried her out under the watchful eye of director Ariane Mnouchkine. It was the same route that the Prophet (Nirupama Nityanandan) had taken, when she was carried down the aisle by black-veiled guards only an hour before.

There was no doubting the audience involvement for the dozen hours of Greek in French at a converted mill outside Bradford. Everyone was suffering from the heat - fanning themselves and drinking bottled water. The limited number of seats (750) and performances (two per play) meant that many in the audience were theatre people. Not surprisingly; for this was Le Theatre du Soleil's first visit in 21 years, and Mnouchkine's flagship production had a force and assurance rarely seen here. It was an event so at ease with itself that the chorus could take refreshments on stage in mid-Agamemnon without any break in the mood.

Iphigenie a Aulis was reviewed on this page last week; I saw Agamemnon, Les Choephores and Les Eumenides. There was compelling acting, particularly from the principal woman, Juliana Carneiro de Cunha, and a constantly surprising score from Jean-Jacques Lemetre and 140 instruments. The chorus sustained an intense control both in the formal dances, which seemed to draw on the traditions of the whole world, and in the kicks, prowls, leaps, and collapses of headier moments.

The chorus in Agamemnon reeled like drunken ostriches as they recalled the story of the House of Atreus. Electra (Nityanandan again) in Les Choephores leapt on stage from the truck that ran in to lead the chorus in a chillingly violent dance of grief. A complete contrast, this, to the decorous steps of Apollo (Shahrokh Meshkin Ghalam) in Les Eumenides, as he glided across the timber square with his golden bow, only to find the Furies, dressed like mid-European bag ladies, ready to score feisty points at the trial.

The force of the production prompted questions about local details. In Agamemnon there was no crimson carpet for the King (Simon Abkarian) to display his hubris. Bang went one of theatre's most vivid exits. Cassandra (Nityanandan) lost much of the eloquence of her silence by hiding behind a curtain in the white four-poster float until Clytemnestra (da Cunha) ripped it back. In Les Choephores Abkarian, in his seventh role, played the Nurse as a drag queen, ditching her raw intimacy. And so on. But enough gripes; the long hours spent struggling in the heat with only basic French had their rewards.

'Shades': Albery (071-867 1115). 'Columbus': Barbican (071-638 8891).

Irving Wardle is on holiday.