THEATRE / The battles of Eric the Bold

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The Independent Culture
THE TERM 'community theatre' has long since died of shame, but the real thing still surfaces from time to time, evoking the lost paradise of Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, and vanishing before anybody gets the chance to spoil it. There were two sightings last week: move fast.

In honour of its hero, Eric Newton, the stage for Eric: the Epic combines a circular running track with a bandstand. That is as good an introduction as any to a man whose biography occupies three closely printed pages, listing his early attachment to the Ceramic City Stompers along with mine surveying, astronomy, mountain climbing, and jobs as a boatman, peripatetic music teacher, wrestler, and cleaner at Stoke Town Hall. These days he is to be found busking in Newcastle, when he is not in France or New Zealand running marathons while playing the clarinet en route.

This is the kind of career that reconfirms the Potteries as the most class-free area in Britain, as mirrored for more than 30 years in the work of the Victoria Theatre. It is typical of the Vic team not only that they chose such a subject, but that the show is the reverse of an ego trip.

Introduced by a waggish MC ('See our hero born in the darkest of times'), Rony Robinson's play presents the main turning points in Newton's life from his discovery of jazz as a grammar school dropout and his lost years on booze and drugs to his second salvation on the running track.

The script jumps from one episode to the next, with the result that climaxes are unprepared and sometimes barely explained. What justifies this in Rob Swain's production is the chance it gives for stylistic freedom, between rude caricature, total recall and mock-heroic expansion.

There are three Erics in the show, changing places like relay runners. Taking cover with the band, there is also Mr Newton himself, filling in the scene gaps with brisk trad numbers. Then he steps forward, and the show turns into theatrical poetry at the sight of this trim 52-year-old accompanying the scene of his own birth with a lullaby, and blowing a mocking farewell to his fat, drink- sodden alter ego. He is a fine player; he has had a tough life. But however moving (and they are), the scenes of bereavement and desperation account for only part of a robust story about grabbing your luck, enjoying what you do, and getting along with other people. You come out feeling quite glad to be alive.

The pretext for Paul Sirett's Worlds Apart is the Asylum and Immigration Bill now passing through Parliament. Looking round the multi-national Stratford East audience, you started wondering how many had relatives whose entry would be blocked under the new procedures; and how many had already undergone the kind of treatment meted out to the Heathrow detainees in Sirett's angry comedy.

The title packs a double punch, referring at once to geographical separation and to the psychological chasm between the occupants of the bleak waiting room and the immigration office staff. On one side, bewilderment, exasperation and dread; on the other, prejudice and the enjoyment of arbitrary authority. The piece is based on first-hand experience and you don't need to be told to which side Sirett has gone for his research. The detainees are well- drawn characters, each with a believable history. By contrast, the officials are farcical monsters, engaged as much in backbiting and sexual intrigue as in giving their captives a hard time. The farce, admittedly, is pretty good; and is strengthened in Jeff Teare's production by the device of framing the play within the plot of a Tibetan opera (narrated by one of the detainees) which supplies a magnified Far Eastern reflection of the office jealousies: one world, worlds apart.

The waiting-room drama would work well as an independent play. The prospect facing the inmates varies from minor inconvenience to the probability of torture and execution. In the meantime they are all in the same boat; and, unable to tackle their stony-faced captors, they take it out on each other. The farce that develops is between people you can both like and dislike. David Harewood's American serviceman, trapped red-handed with a bag of tulip bulbs, is a bellowing lout and a good-natured joker. Madhav Sharma's software tycoon is a caricature of British-Indian self-importance, but it is he who smuggles the endangered Tibetan (Richard Rees) past the guards. A roar of delight went up from the audience at this short- lived triumph. The play strikes a nerve, and drags some awkward facts into daylight.

Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings has not been seen on the British stage for 46 years; which, judging from Burt Caesar's ambitious revival, is no surprise. At the time of its 1924 Broadway premiere, O'Neill strenuously denied that this study of a doomed marriage between a black boy and a white girl had anything to do with miscegenation. What it clearly does reflect is O'Neill's obsession with doomed marriages in general. It is not a well-written piece, but good actors could make much of Jim and Ella's mutually destructive partnership, and the role of Jim's proudly African sister.

The West Yorks cast do little more than go through the motions. They yield unresistingly to the sentimentality of the dialogue, and telegraph a sense of oncoming disaster without communicating the emotions of the present moment. Christopher John Hall's lack of conviction as a struggling law student is outmatched only by Sharon Henry's crazed arrival to stick a knife into his books. This is an elaborate show (part of Leeds's 100th anniversary celebrations), but Robert Jones's towering metal set does nothing to convey social background, or the fact that Jim comes from a wealthy family. What it does supply is ample space for a 60-strong candlelit choir which periodically sweeps on and stops the show with 'Rock of Ages' and 'Going Home'. O'Neill wanted music in this play; but not, I think, a community singsong.

The doomed lovers in Marguerite Duras's La Musica are a wiltingly civilised pair who return to their honeymoon hotel to contemplate the wreckage of the past. For those, like me, who are deaf to Duras's elegiac chords, this will seem an attempt to upgrade escapist romance into art by leaving out the details. It is, however, superbly played by Harriet Walter and Larry Lamb; and Geraldine Pilgrim's pillared set lays their affair to rest in an authentic mausoleum.

'Eric: the Epic', New Victoria, Newcastle-under-Lyme, 0782- 717962. 'Worlds Apart', Royal, Stratford East, 081-534 0310. 'All God's Chillun Got Wings', West Yorks, 0532-451295. 'La Musica', Hampstead, 071-722 9301.