THEATRE / Surreal spider traps but fails to entrance

IMPRISONMENT, physical degradation, torture, on-stage defecation and burning alive - who says that musicals disdain ugly realities? Or that audiences recoil from them, after a week when the loudest ovation went to Jahn Teigen in the small role of an executioner serenading his collection of racks and thumbscrews?

What the two shows in question also prove is that musicals can digest all this and more without forfeiting their claim to being escapist entertainment. In Fred Ebb and John Kander's

Kiss of the Spider Woman - the latest incarnation of Manuel Puig's much-adapted novel - escapism is elevated into a moral principle. Here we are back in that vile Argentinian jail where the ever-inventive authorities have added to the routine torments of a political prisoner by throwing him into a cell with a sex offender. Those who saw the 1985 Bush production or the subsequent film, will remember that the vicious plan misfires, and that the two men become the best of friends when the homosexual Molina saves his Marxist cell-mate (Valentin) from poisoning and converts him to a taste for romantic movies.

It is here that the authors of Cabaret and Chicago find their pretext. Molina retailing his last-reel memories is all very well, but how much better to project his inner world with the full resources of the musical theatre. He says he uses fantasy to blot out his actual surroundings: here is a chance to take the audience inside his head and prove it. So what Harold Prince offers is a two-world show - one of steel, one of tinsel - carried through into every department of the production. In Jerome Sirlin's design, the stage opening presents a giant cage, sometimes contracting to an observation platform or a packed punishment cell, sometimes widening into a perimeter fence where escaping prisoners hang like brightly lit moths before being gunned down. But at Molina's invocation to his Aurora, the bars dissolve into a starlit sky, Kander's hammering robotic ostinatos melt into the lyric equivalent of a feather bed; and on comes the Janus-faced heroine - dream goddess and angel of death - in the awesome person of Chita Rivera, searing voice and piston limbs unimpaired by the 35 years since she played Anita in West Side Story. She is still dynamite.

Meanwhile, the reality of the central partnership remains intact, and rendered all the bleaker in Terrence McNally's book by the absence of surrounding melodrama. The two guards are no worse than casual bullies; the warden (Herndon Lackey) is a conscientious bureaucrat whose duties happen to include forms of interrogation that cause deafness, insanity, and death. Anthony Crivello plays Valentin as an aggressively resistible people's hero in a Zapata moustache, who directs his enraged despair at the defenceless Molina; who, in Brent Carver's stunning performance, comes on as a Manhattan gay - a winsome, head-tossing window-dresser, fixing up the cell like a bower of bliss, charming and pliable on all points apart from his inflexible resistance to revolutionary politics.

The stages by which his resistance breaks down are implicit in his character and firmly anchored in both the realist and fantasy scenes. From the first moment of intimacy - when he cleans up his incontinent cellmate - through the posthumous 'optimistic ending' (as a star, applauded by a combined audience of old friends and former enemies) there is no faulting the narrative. This is an unassailably accomplished show. It left me cold for two reasons: because, like other Prince productions, it sets out to raise the roof by battering the audience into the ground; and because it reveals the Broadway musical, even with its back to the wall, still plugging the old commercial that all you need is love and the power to dream.

Escapism in the case of Benedicte Adrian and Ingrid Bjornov's Which Witch is achieved by the simple passage of time. Lucky us, not to be living in 16th-century Heidelberg, where troupes of blind vigilantes roam the streets sniffing out evil doers, and a nice Italian girl cannot have an affair with a bishop without being thrown in the stocks, given the run of the torture chamber, and burnt as a witch. This 'Operamusical', hugely popular in its Norwegian homeland, could have furnished Verdi with a libretto; and, as it is, it arrrives in London armed with the metrically graceful and pungently expressive lyrics of Kit Hesketh-Harvey. They cleave beautifully to the most immediately melodic West End score since Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Which is to say that Adrian and Bjornov go in for unadorned repetition of 16-bar tunes over a tonic-dominant see-saw.

Even at the height of a Witches' Sabbath, when Richard Hudson's brick set splits open to the fires of hell, the demons are still looping the loop over the audience to strict four-bar phrases. That may sound nave, but the effect, in Piers Haggard's production, is both theatrical and musically appealing: especially in the vocal lines, which include combative duets and ingenious fugues for a chorus of squabbling quacks around the bishop's sick-bed. He has been poisoned by his sister - the Mrs Danvers of Heidelberg - with the double motive of keeping him in her possession and nailing the lovely Maria for sorcery. As played by Vivien Parry, a model of gently virtuous devotion until she erupts in red tights and a tail on Walpurgis night, sister Anna is by far the most interesting figure in the piece. The others, from Maria's burly banker bridegroom to the papal witch-pricker, are all stock types in a narrative which grinds towards its inevitable ending with no surprises. Maria, too, is simply idealised: but as played by Benedicte Adrian, an incandescent presence with a vocal technique that can find music even in screams of pain, she is not to be missed.

Peter Gill's production of The Way of the World is not the funniest I have seen, but it is the most lucid. If Congreve's plot remains opaque, it is clearly fired by the pain of those two damaged creatures, Fainall and Mrs Marwood (Jonathan Phillips and Eleanor David), who come close to tears in their first-act duet. From this scene, the title refers to the arbitrary injustice of fortune; which is then echoed in the contrast of Millamant and Lady Wishfort - a wise young woman and a foolish old one, but both after the same thing and employing the same sexual techniques. Sheila Hancock's Lady Wishfort is not a grotesque, but a plaintive loser placing her last bet; while Barbara Flynn sharpens Millamant's erotic challenge by avoiding stylistic pirouettes and

delivering her teasing evasions as if they were plain common sense. You are left with a vivid

X-ray of the comedy. There is also a dull Mirabell, an excellent Sir Wilfull (Gary Olsen), and the intriguingly bisected perspectives of Tom Piper's set.

In Marston's The Dutch Courtesan, the hero feigns death and drives his mistress, his fiancee, and his best friend to crime, despair, and near execution. Meanwhile, a prankster called Cocledemoy is propelling a blameless vintner into insanity with brutal practical jokes. Of all Jacobean comedies, this one comes closest to bear-baiting. Thanks in particular to Amanda Royle (who resists the blackguarding of the title role) and Frank Moorey (an expert in crescendos of impotent rage) I thoroughly enjoyed Sam Waters's production, and hated myself afterwards.

'Kiss of the Spider Woman': Shaftesbury (071-379 4444); 'Which Witch': Piccadilly (071-867 1118); 'Way of the World': Lyric Hammersmith (081-741 2311); 'The Dutch Courtesan': Orange Tree (081- 940 3633).

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