THEATRE / The London Fringe: Borrowed times

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Step into the King's Head, and you're whisked back a quarter of a century to a theatrical world that vanished with the Sixties: the world of a Flanders and Swann revue. But the charming atmosphere is deceptive: Alan Strachan's tribute to the great song-writing duo is skilfully constructed to combine nostalgia with a darker purpose. While the old favourites are there - 'Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud' et al - a more sinister note is sounded in 'Twenty Tons of TNT', a number about arms limitation.

Above all, though, Under Their Hats confirms Flanders and Swann to be masters at detailing English obsessions - the weather, workmen, interior design and secret societies among them. Spot-on casting and polished performances (every word is crisply enunciated) mean that Wendy Toye's production is light as a meringue but surprisingly full of pathos. It's not boundary-breaking, but neither is it as anodyne as you might expect.

Another curiosity from the past is Paul Osborn's 1930s American comedy On Borrowed Time, revived at Southwark Playhouse. Set in small-town America when boys wore short pants and grandpas were called 'Gramps', Osborn's homely fable begins by drawing a touching relationship between a curmudgeonly old man and his orphaned grandson, Pud. But the play takes an odd twist when Death, masquerading as the smooth-talking Mr Brink, appears in the drawing-room to take Granny and Gramps.

Gramps, an obstinate old cuss, lures Mr Brink up an apple tree with a spell that leaves him stranded. But with Mr Brink relieved of his duties, the world begins to get very crowded, and soon Gramps is wrestling with a moral conundrum.

It's a measure of the charm of Imelda Staunton's production that you can swallow enough of this bizarre tale to remain engaged. The piece is full of corny jokes and in need of a sub-plot, but Staunton and her cast bask in its gentle comedy.

Odd spectres hang around the home, too, in Julie Balloo's Cartoons from a Cold Corner, but this time we're back in the 1990s and the mood could scarcely be more different. Balloo's sinister comedy is part of the London New Play Festival at the Gate, and details the gruesome home-life of brother and sister, Tom and Gerry.

She's a tubby bulimic with a childish obsession for cartoons, he's a morose, lanky misogynist; they share their bed and a nasty secret about the death of their little sister. And when Gerry's nymphomaniac friend tries to move in on Tom, the threat to their cosy little set-up is too much. The style is somewhere between cartoon- world and an Ian McEwan novel, and the strong cast revel in its grotesqueness. But the evening leaves you with as much insight and inner glow as finding a collection of cockroaches behind the fridge.

Sherry Coman's Say Zebra is an altogether more heartwarming and interesting Festival premiere, examining the validity of idealism in the shape of a young American girl who gets into trouble when she travels to 1980s South Africa with her pacifist message. As her friend and a journalist try to trace her, Coman explores the difficulties of trying to do good. The script is occasionally too earnest and tricksy, but at its best it has a powerful emotional appeal, and the story and performances of Maria Douglas and Afia Nkrumah as the two girls are hard to resist.

'Under Their Hats', King's Head, N1 (071-226 1916); 'On Borrowed Time', Southwark Playhouse, SE1 (071-620 3494); 'New Play Festival', Gate, W11 (071-229 0706).

(Photograph omitted)

Comments