THEATRE The Belle Vue Actors Touring Company

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This is the first time that Odon von Horvath's 70-year-old play, The Belle Vue, has been seen in Britain. This is a bold venture for the Actors Touring Company, for Horvath's writing swings between high and low comedy, surrealism and farce and is, above all, enigmatic.

Horvath is writing about Germany, about the effects of the breakdown of social and economic order, the unreal period after the First World War, when the only civilised existence was to pose as someone else. The trouble was that everyone was doing it and everybody knew. The characters may be amusingly eccentric or transparently false, but a brutish reality is always present.

The play is set in a run-down hotel, somewhere in the Alps. Inflation and shortages have reduced the staff to a surly crew. The only guest, a woman aristocrat with implausible platinum blonde hair, is the focal point of interest. All the other characters are giving themselves airs in order to preserve some shabby dignity in the crumbling civilisation. There are comic incidents and yet this is not comedy. There is outrageous posturing and yet this is not farce. All the comic moments are born of desperation, the epigrams have a hollow ring. The plot starts sparking with the arrival of a demented young woman, who may be a prostitute, or a nymphomaniac, but is certainly a fuse to trouser fireworks in all the male characters.

The play proceeds like a comic opera, with the cast making choreographed scene changes - a Viennese trifle, with some of the bonbons spiked with poison. Nick Philippou's production is theatrically effective and gathers strength in the second act, and is entirely convincing at the end.

Ann Firbank's tottering aristocrat used to better times carries off the role with world-weary impatience, and Michael Sheldon's impoverished hotel owner, alternately bullying and cringing, and Christopher Staines's rebellious waiter become fully developed characters before the end. Faith Flint as the catalyst has a kind of daft innocence and Rod Meadows and John Dicks provide colour and shade. The Belle Vue is an odd, sometimes irritating, play that has to be seen on its own terms and in the context of the times.

On tour: 30, 31 Oct, Pontardawe, Swansea; 2 Nov, Gardner, Brighton; 19- 30 Nov, Lyric Studio, Hammersmith, London

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