THEATRE : The art of dirty fighting

THE National Theatre scored a deserved hit last year with Katie Mitchell's revival of Githa Sowerby's Rutherford and Son. But South Bank audiences only saw that play thanks to its rediscovery by two fringe companies in the 1980s; and Sowerby, hav ing hadher moment, was likely to have finished on the shelf as a one-play author. Fortunately, the fringe - in the shape of Bristol's Show of Strength company - has now returned to the Sowerby archive and come up with another remarkable piece.

Nothing has been heard of A Man and Some Women (1914) since its one-week run at the Manchester Gaiety two years after Rutherford - which I can only take as evidence of stiff competition from the other Manchester dramatists. Like its prede- cessor, the play shows a pack of aggrieved women making life hell for one another in a big house. The difference is that here the head of the house becomes a victim rather than a tyrant. Richard, compelled in youth to abandon a mistress and a career in science, is nowa tetchy middle-aged man working himself to death on the Stock Exchange to support his unloved wife and two spinster sisters. The real tyrant is his unseen mother, who forced this life on him and then cut herself off from the family.

The piece opens with his return from her funeral, which activates the events of the plot. Sowerby's model is the Victorian inheritance melodrama: and in that sense you can see what is coming. Of course Richard will turn to Jessica - the only independent woman in the story - in his hour of need; of course he will find a good home for his motherless young nephew, and resume his work on tropical diseases. Sowerby pushes all this through with a purposeful energy that sometimes twists her people out of character.

What transfixes attention, even in the manipulative scenes, is the poisonously accurate domestic detail. Reflecting a period when telephones and cars coexisted with the full apparatus of Victorian morality, the play may belong to a vanished world in which domestic misery is seen as preferable to scandal and poverty. But there is nothing dated in its treatment of the family as a prison with a strict pecking order. The two sisters are marvellously developed: beginning as equally spiteful poor relations, and then diverging, as one (Sheila Hannon) tries to raise her status through malicious piety and the other (Lin Sagovsky) reveals the candour of someone who has nothing to lose. As the wife, Maggie O'Brien rules the roost with a complacently forbearing smile which fades when she engages with Richard (Robin Welch) in her jealously insatiable demands for money.

Sowerby does not pursue the idea that this hunger derives from their groin-dead relationship. What she does offer is a pitilessly exact demonstration of all the dishonest tricks by which marital antagonists put themselves in the right and pass off every selfish impulse as a matter of duty. I can think of no better primer to the art of domestic dirty fighting. Caroline Hunt directs with a sure sense of pace and emphasis; and her production is advantageously staged in a thick-walled 14th-century priory (bang in the middle of a shop- ping centre) which feels as dark and inescapable as any fortress of the Mancunian bourgeoisie.

Jean Anouilh has become almost as rare a bird as the Manchester playwrights, but this inveterately Right Bank artist is not to be salvaged by the fringe. Played by a company combining glamour and high-comic finesse, Leocadia might still work the spell itcast in 1955 with Paul Sco-field and Mary Ure. As it appears in Jonathan Cognac's Generation X revival, with an intelligent but less than star-studded cast in an environment of basic props and hopeful back-projections, you are simply thrown back on the plot. A dotty old duchess recruits a young milliner to masquerade as her nephew's dead beloved in a theme park enshrining his romantic memories. It sounds silly; it looks silly; and the first act, in which the embarrassed old lady tries to explain the intrigue to her protegee, taxes patience to snapping point. Instead of relishing her digressions as a source of suspense and eccentric comedy, you just want her to get on with it.

Edgar (Miltos Yerolemou), the hero of Roy Smiles's The Court Jester, sets off with pig's bladder and whoopee cushion to seek his fortune in the palace of Edward III, where a villainous John of Gaunt is scheming to make away with the future Richard II, while also polishing off every jester who crosses his path. One disastrous audition and Edgar is down in the dungeon, which gives him the cue for a hopeful song, "Always Tomorrow", in harmony with his fellow prisoner, John Ball. As a comic writer, Smiles owes a few debts to Monty Python and Ken Campbell's nonsense plays; but he remains a powerful gag-man who makes you want to know what happens next.

Ain't Misbehavin', one of the most successful compilation shows ever devised, makes its return in an excellent small-stage version by Gillian Gregory and Nicholas Kent. It takes nerve for any pianist to assume the mantle of Fats Waller, but Clement Ishmael not only tears into show-pieces like "Handful of Keys" with full exuberance, he also acts as MC to a stage of gradually increasing depth - which finally opens up on a band recreating the pre-war Harlem sound for the superbly choreographed company. Moving through rent parties, troop shows and hotel lounges, the production can either be descibed as plotless or bursting with plots. Either way, the songs are irresistible: each one leaving you convinced that the last singer is the best thing in the show.

`A Man & Some Women': Bristol Quakers, 0272 537735. `Leocadia': New End, NW3, 071-794 0022. `Court Jester': Croydon Warehouse, 081-680 4060. `Ain't Misbehavin': Tricycle, NW6, 071-328 1000.