THEATRE / Still queasy after all these years: Birthday Party - Lyttelton; Old Ladies - Greenwich; Democracy - Bush

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'THROW IT away,' said Friedrich Hebbel, 'so that you don't lose it.' With every performance of Harold Pinter's later plays, I remember this slogan. Over the years, Pinter's audiences have become knowing. We have learnt not to trust what anybody says, or to expect mysteries to be unscrambled. We know when to laugh, and when to register a shiver of non-specific dread. You can become quite at home in his comfortless world; and, by so doing, lose all sense of what the plays are about.

This is least so in the case of his first full-length piece. Peter Hall once classed The Birthday Party as inferior to the later plays because it is still attached to the conventions of weekly rep. That was, and remains, the most exciting thing about it. In it, you can see Pinter discovering his own territory. It takes you from the known to the unknown. At its 1958 premiere, I remember settling back for a cosy laugh at the expense of a comical seaside landlady and her layabout lodger. It was like Ionesco domesticated by Donald McGill. Then the two mysterious gentlemen arrived and that banal living room opened up to the horrors of modern history. No wonder some spectators were aggrieved.

Sam Mendes's production rests on the assumption that the play can still deliver this kind of shock. Tom Piper's meticulous set trucks forward to the jaunty theme tune of Housewives' Choice, launching Dora Bryan and Trevor Peacock into their regular breakfast routine. Over the cornflakes their conversation turns to concert parties on the pier; but these partners could themselves top the bill. And when Stanley shambles down in his pyjama top and dangling braces, it is not in the usual likeness of a hopeless buffoon. Anton Lesser plays him as a victim who has gone into hiding after some undisclosed calamity. He is in a permanent rage, and treats the doting Meg abominably. But he is not a retarded fool, and when the destroyers close in, he has something to lose. From this basis in farcical realism, the leap into poetic nightmare is as electrifying as ever.

But at a cost. Among other things, the play is about the defeat of stupid but good-natured people by malignant outsiders. One way Pinter develops this is from the landlady-lodger joke through to the birthday party, which is at once a malicious prank by the intruders and the occasion for Meg to pour out her feelings for Stanley. Her speech is as stunted as ever, but it comes from the heart. Not, however, as Dora Bryan plays it. With her gorgeously curdled vowels and come-hithering smirks, she boosts the first act into farcical orbit. But come the party and its desolate sequel, and she is still sending Meg up as an absurd grotesque.

In all other departments, this is a superb revival. It has the quality of a dance, as much in the characters' see-saw status games as in the physical routines with which Pinter works his way towards meaning through external gestures. Bob Peck's Goldberg, a compulsive cuff-shooter with the bearing of a police colonel, finds an ideal partner in Nicholas Woodeson's combustible McCann: clown emblems of Irgun and the IRA, operating in deadly harmony. Their antiphonal interrogation, which reduces Lesser's Stanley to a brainwashed wreck, remains the central event. But throughout, the company (including the busty pin-up of Emma Amos's Lulu) shapes the text towards volcanic and unforeseen moments of climax. The last of these comes from Mr Piper, whose set finally closes in on the cheerfully vacant room to show a grim terraced street under scudding clouds, suggesting the site of some old murder. Unmissable.

Before making my plea (in last week's Sunday Review) for opening main stages to minority writing I wish I'd been able to quote the case of Beckett's Footfalls, which has now closed after flashing through the Garrick for five nights. If the idea of taking over a West End house for twice-nightly performances of a 20-minute avant-garde text sounds like lunacy, Deborah Warner's production leaves me hoping for a mass loss of managerial marbles. The piece consists of an oblique duologue between a middle-aged woman, domestically imprisoned since childhood, and her unseen mother. It did little for me when I saw it in the 1970s. Warner's version I found spellbinding.

Beckett specifies an acting area nine steps in length for the character's ceaseless pacing. Hildegard Bechtler, the Garrick designer, accommodated this on the edge of the circle, so that the maimed, sleepless figure of Fiona Shaw seemed crushed by the balcony above. Then, when she converts her plight into fiction (transliterating her name from May to Amy), Shaw exchanged her coffin-like confinement for the freedom of the empty stage. The performance described a huge emotional arc from tormented exchanges with the aggressively guilt-ridden mother (played by Susan Engel) to the comic parody of her imaginative monologue. The production embraced the whole space, making it seem empty even in the presence of a large audience; and proving that there is no correlation between the duration of a work and its theatrical magnitude.

Rodney Ackland's The Old Ladies is the latest of Annie Castledine's excavations into the hits of the 1930s. It is a real find. Taken from a novel by Hugh Walpole, it shows greed and cruelty flourishing to the brink of the grave through the story of May, an impoverished maiden lady who moves into furnished rooms with her one treasured possession, an amber figurine. A cosy future seems to stretch ahead for May and Lucy, her equally genteel landlady, until the figurine is spotted by Agatha, the other tenant, who is consumed with desire to possess it.

This is a Guignol piece which works through to an extravagantly macabre climax. But it also develops a dramatic debate on alternative codes of value through wonderfully perceptive treatment of the three characters: May, fearful and living in the past; Agatha, rejuvenated by possessive lust; and Lucy, who is too good-hearted to realise the impending danger. Ackland's dialogue is disciplined, and can convey volumes of panic, despair and life-long regret within the genteel vocabulary of tea-table courtesies. Faith Brook and Doreen Mantle play extraordinary variations within this restricted style. But it is not Agatha's style, and Miriam Karlin pushes her gypsy-like menace to the edge of camp. Sometimes over the edge. 'They don't make hats like this nowadays,' she rasps, as May cowers against the wall: 'You can't beat fruit]' Still, that is better than taking the melodrama at face value; and while the other ladies are derived from standard models, Karlin has had to invent herself.

In Democracy, a dying

soldier from the Federal Army and a deserter from the South find an oasis of calm in the midst of the American Civil War, while their host, Walt Whitman, collides with Ralph Waldo Emerson over the future of the United States. The Canadian author John Murrell brings argumentative passion and a sense of tragedy to bear on this static situation; and his two mighty antagonists are doughtily played by Stanley Townshend and Hugh Ross. But the undoubted star of John Dove's production is Robert Jones, whose forest clearing sets a standard of unfaultable naturalism even beyond the past achievements of the Bush.

'Birthday Party', Lyttelton, 071-928 2252. 'Old Ladies', Greenwich, 081-858 7755. 'Democracy', Bush, 081-743 3388.

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