THEATRE / The man who went where Joyce feared to tread

Click to follow
THERE IS plenty of madness walking the streets of Britain, but not many people who know how to write about it. One explanation, I suppose, is that if you have it in the family or among close friends, you shut up: like James Joyce, that insatiable literary cannibal, who never published a line about his insane daughter. Whatever Joe Penhall's personal experience of this taboo theme, Some Voices puts him alongside the late David Mercer as an authentic dramatist of schizophrenia.

His main character has been sectioned after an unspecified crisis. At the start of the play, Ray is released into the protection of his brother, Pete, who finds himself trapped in a typical community-care Catch-22. Ray's malady can be controlled by medication, but as one of its symptoms is disbelief that there is anything wrong with him, he refuses the treatment - and develops paranoid suspicions that any offer of help represents a conspiracy to force pills down his throat. With no obvious signs of disability, he moves in with a girl who is on the run from her brutal Belfast lover, Dave, and the machine is wound up for a nightmare scenario leading to attempted self-immolation and a hammered skull.

Three gradations of insanity are present on Penhall's stage: from the ambulatory schizoid Ray (Lee Ross) and the psychotically jealous Dave (Lloyd Hutchinson), to Ives (Tom Watson), an institutionalised old timer irreclaimably imprisoned in his private world. Besides the excellence of these performances, what gives them meaning is Penhall's success in charting the trio's emotional rhythms and showing how they adapt to changing circumstances. Outside his sexual obsessions, for instance, Dave is just an ordinary chap. Ray makes lightning transitions between emotional candour and defensive cunning. Ives is impenetrable, but his pounding authoritarian speeches, with their comic implosions of the apocalyptic and the humdrum and their flights of schizophrenic poetry: 'I'm disgusted with the sky, the water; the trees' are the most eloquent passages in Ian Rickson's production.

The central idea, developing throughout the piece, is of the strength of the mentally disabled. Barricaded inside their own self-justifying logic and immune from remorse, they have a calm sense of purpose that can look like sanity. Whereas poor Pete (Ray Winstone), loaded with responsibilities, deluged with incomprehensible Health Service forms, and invaded by strangers claiming to come from the planet Vega, is being driven out of his wits. An old idea, truthfully and painfully brought to life.

There is lots of interesting stuff in Lavinia Murray's Wax, a 'secret life of Marie Tussaud' from which I learn that the doomed royals were in the habit of posing as waxworks to surprise party guests, and that the slanting guillotine blade was designed by the King himself. Anna Furse's Paines Plough production is set in the heroine's spooky studio, where shelves of disembodied limbs back onto hidden wall-openings from which even grislier apparitions emerge. To the accompaniment of rumbling tumbrils, Shona Morris embarks on Marie's life story, occasionally breaking off to witness the death of Marat or take delivery of a head through her front door. We see her visiting the Madeleine cemetery for death- mask commissions, reminiscing about Rousseau while ghostly fingers (belonging to Alan Aldridge) caress her hair, and making her artistic conquest of England where she dislikes the food ('It's all watercolours]') The events do not follow chronologically, but they are vividly played and staged with Guignol flair - as in a conversation between Robespierre and Voltaire as two heads on a revolving table. My objection is that the Tussaud staging is inappropriate for Marie herself, a tough and successful businesswoman. This show suggests that the Revolution simply drove her nuts.

Repeating the winning formula of The Buddy Holly Story, Shirlie Roden and Jon Miller's Only the Lonely consists of a string of Roy Orbison numbers draped over a sketchy biography of the former 'Caruso of Rock'. If Orbison has half as many fans, it will probably work. Bill Kenwright and Ian Kellgren's production rises powerfully to the catastrophic main events (the violent deaths of Orbison's wife and two of his children); and however slapdash the book, the casting is exemplary, particularly in the transformation of James Caroll Jordan and Paul Besterman (who also plays a hot harmonica) from two twangy Southerners into an ultra-British Brian Epstein and the raucous manager of the Slough Adelphi. Dusty Springfield, the Beatles and the line-up of the Traveling Wilburys are all plausibly, and musically, evoked. While without Larry Branson's uncanny duplication of the Orbison voice, from its driving tenor to the height of its lachrymose falsetto, there would have been no pretext for the show.

What remains to be written is a piece exploring this gifted and self-destructive man, not least the contrast between how he sounded and how he looked. Here the joint is jumping with snake-hipped youngsters who have been turned on by the weedily sedate star in black shades and pudding-basin haircut. It is hard to shake off the impression that this is the bedroom-mirror fantasy of someone who is never going to make it.

Few things set the critical juices flowing more carnivorously than the news that some fabled Hollywood star is about to achieve a long-cherished Shakespearean debut. Resisting this unworthy impulse, let me welcome Richard Dreyfuss's production of Hamlet for Steven Berkoff's marvellous (pre- recorded) performance of the Ghost as a soul in torment, and Bernard Kay's convincing restoration of Polonius as a blunt, warm-hearted father who only prevaricates to spare people's feelings. Mike Dowling and Jonathan Weir go some way towards distinguishing a bluff, comradely Rosencrantz from a snaky, conspiratorial Guildenstern. Otherwise I can see no alternative to describing this textually butchered, undercast, concept-free, 10th-century- mead-hall production, featuring carousing extras and droopy spear-carriers, and a macho Hamlet (Russell Boulter) who kills every reflective line stone- dead, as anything but a washout.

'Some Voices', Royal Court, Upstairs, 071-730 1745. 'Wax', Lyric Studio, Hammersmith, 081-741 8701. 'Only the Lonely', Piccadilly, 071-369 1734. 'Hamlet', Birmingham Old Rep, 021-616 1519.

Correction: In describing the work of Helena Kaut-Howson, Artistic Director of Theatr Clwyd (Sunday Review, 4 Sept), I said that two of her company's productions this year had been staged without the help of public money. This has been denied by Councillor Norman Walmsley, chairman of the theatre's Board of Governors. Following further inquiries, I acknowledge that these productions were subsidised and that my statement was wrong. Apologies to Mr Walmsley and the board.