THEATRE / The Fringe: Voyage round his father

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The Independent Culture
Plays that play Pirandellian games with form and deconstruct their genre can be teasing and illuminating - they can also prove a little tiresome. Neil Bartlett's Night after Night (Royal Court, London SW1) has a toe in both camps. The piece has been long in the gestation, and it now emerges lovingly and meticulously crafted. An avowedly gay writer and performer, Bartlett starts with the fact that he and his firmly heterosexual father look almost identical. It's a coincidence that leads him to meditate on the difference between his father's life and his own, and to consider the way expectations for gay artists compare with the time when his father was roughly the same age.

As the show opens we meet Bartlett-pere on a wet spring evening in 1958, on his way to the West End to celebrate the fact that his wife is expecting Neil. He chooses a nice boy- meets-girl musical, but as he waits in the foyer for his own girl to arrive, he gets sucked into the theatre's gay subculture. First he becomes a silent witness to the testimonies of the lonely backstage staff, then he is drawn into the world of the musical itself, where the gentlemen of the chorus enact banal fantasies that are laced with irony for the performers themselves. As Trevor Bartlett is whisked through the musical numbers, we in the audience can appreciate that in 35 years' time his son Neil will be able to use this dramatic form to reflect the levels of censorship and self-expression in the theatre of the time.

The show is touching, beautifully written and very funny, and the cast is excellent. Laced with Nicolas Bloomfield's music, the play opens with a remarkable evocation of an empty foyer on a rainy night, and the feelings of expectation that hover around the theatre and the father-to- be. It loses momentum slightly in the second act, where the parody outstays its welcome and is occasionally too convoluted. But it's a moving show, nowhere more so than in the speeches from the gloriously camp barman (Paul Shaw), behind whose bravura we detect a terrible loneliness.

Allan Stratton's Canadian satire Bag Babies (New End, London NW3) also plays with form. A modern comedy of manners, it begins in rhyming couplets, introducing a ghastly bunch of Toronto yuppies, who have discovered they are no longer fashionable, and are busy minting ways of appearing charitable while keeping their cash. Enter George, a greasy hobo with the bright idea of adopting street people - the 'bag babies' of the title. But we know George is no ordinary tramp - he's a dramatic device who can stop and start the action at will. This is enjoyable at first, but ultimately tedious despite the best efforts of a strong cast (particularly Kit Hollerbach as a cheesy TV chat-show host).

In her double-bill Undeveloped Land (Chelsea Centre, London SW11) Nicola Baldwin also deliberately uses form to make her points. The two self-contained plays are linked by a common location - the Yorkshire moors - and the fact that during the action a relationship undergoes a significant shift. Of the two, the first play is by far the most successful, starting with a pleasing, original idea. A cocky young singer, Ray, and his has-been manager, Ramon, are on the road, squabbling about principles, when they run into a Luddite trapped in a time-warp. The Luddite and Ramon discover they share a sense of being overrun by machines. It's a strong scenario - weakened by Ray, who is written as a foil and underdeveloped - that shows evidence of a bright new theatrical voice.

'Night after Night' (071-730 1745); 'Bag Babies' (071-794 0022); 'Undeveloped Land' (071-352 1967).

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