THEATRE / The Fringe: In a state of decline

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The Independent Culture
Now that our impotence to intervene in conflicts in faraway countries is again a matter for debate, Falling Over England, Julian Mitchell's new play, seems very timely: because its theme is, roughly, how we got this way. Through the lives of the Cowpers, an upper-middle-class English family, it traces the decline in national self-confidence from its post- War high-water mark to the present.

The key figure is the disillusioned historian Matt. Aged 20 (played by Daniel Betts), an army reservist and timid idealist, he dodges out of the Suez Crisis not so much because the conflict violates any principles, but because the principles which would normally persuade him to fight for king and country are here inoperative; 40 years on, and now played by James Laurenson, he finds himself harking back to his father's die-hard Toryism. Mitchell's grasp of historical sweep and period atmosphere is hard to fault; where he does fall is with the characters. Only Matt's father Harry (James Laurenson in the 1956 scenes) has any surprises: an old- school Tory with imperialist prejudices, he yet comes across as believable and sympathetic. But Harry's embittered wife is little more than a shrew; their offspring mere totems of the Nineties. In the end, the play lacks exactly that vigour that Mitchell shows us seeping out of the nation.

Vigour is the last thing Darwin's Flood needs: you just wish it would stand still long enough for you to draw a bead on it. A precis of Snoo Wilson's unhistorical sprawl is impossible, but roughly what happens is this: on the evening of his death, Charles Darwin is visited by a time- travelling Nietzsche and Jesus Christ (played here as a racing cyclist with an Ulster accent). In the course of the night, Darwin's dead father speaks from the ceiling, Mary Magdalene subjects Nietzsche to a bondage session, and a second Deluge begins.

Wilson's approach is to bang ideas together as hard as he can and see if any sparks fly off - in this case, arguments about science, religion, and the nature of history (contingent, or directed and progressive, or cyclical?). Even in Simon Stokes's resourceful, enthusiastically acted production, the stream of inventive nonsense and anachronism (after Christ on a bike, Mary Magdalene in a helicopter) gets tiresome; but it wins through with humour and intellectual panache.

Rough Justice, Terence Frisby's courtroom drama at the Apollo on Shaftesbury Avenue, is another play packed with big issues; but it's quickly apparent that Frisby doesn't know what to do with them. The central question is whether Martin Shaw should go to jail for killing his massively handicapped baby son. But the problem is confused by the information that Shaw's character is a celebrated television journalist who specialises in exposing miscarriages of justice, while the prosecuting counsel (Diana Quick) is a celebrated pro-life campaigner, and in any case, it was really Shaw's wife whodunnit.

The result of all these distractions is that the play never gets to grips with the real moral difficulties, and the actors never get to grips with their characters. You can't blame them: this is formula drama with the ingredients thrown in any old how, and you suspect it is unperformable.

So, really, is Love's Labour's Lost. More than any other Shakespeare, the density of language punning makes the comedy unintelligible to a modern audience; you imagine Tom Stoppard will seem like this in a couple of hundred years. Even taking that into account, Ian Judge's RSC production, now transferred to the Pit, is a frustrating affair. The basic conception, placing the action in Edwardian Oxford, makes perfect sense, but Judge seems to have pursued period detail at the expense of offering an interpretation of the play - a Merchant-Ivory approach to Shakespeare. It's hard work within this vacuum, so all the more credit to Jeremy Northam's louche, cynical Berowne and Christopher Luscombe's Moth, a precociously fogyish choirboy.