THEATRE / The Rovers score and the crows go wild

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The Independent Culture
hile the sports field has long been the place for the most commanding theatrical performances, several playwrights - John Godber, Arthur Smith - have been working energetically to restore the balance. Paul Mercier joins them with Studs (Tricycle, NW6), a football play that is wittily written and performed with vigour, skill and invention.

The Rovers are a dire amateur team who confuse running about like headless chickens with playing a game of football; they wouldn't recognise the word tactics if it were tattooed on their vitals. Their ground is up for redevelopment, the only crowd they ever play to is a treeful of crows and their captain, Bubbles, is defeated by their bickering. Then in walks a mystery man, offering himself as manager. Shouting remorselessly at them, he convinces them to use their heads and reminds them they are a team. It does the trick: within a fortnight the Rovers are on course for the cup, riding high on adrenalin. But who is this mysterious man? And will the Rovers ever hold the cup?

Mercier keeps the plot kindled with these questions, while exploring the play's broader concerns. As the team begins to score, the players' interior monologues, to which we are privy, shift from fantasies of winning to attaining their personal goals. Mercier illustrates the empowering nature of success, and the corrosive effects of a life played out in the bottom league.

The RSC brings into the Barbican two plays about the power of desire: Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and The Changeling by Middleton and Rowley. The very aspect of Antony and Cleopatra that is its glory - the superb poetry - makes it difficult to stage: we perceive the lovers as superhuman, dazzling creatures, and yet, at the same time, as a pair of ageing adulterers. Clare Higgins, in John Caird's production, somehow encompasses this. Her charismatic, brilliantly feline Cleopatra displays infinite variety: you never know if she will pounce or purr. Her energy is captivating, her iron will at the end magisterial. Richard Johnson has perhaps the harder task - Antony's is a spent greatness - but he brings to it a stately fatigue. Around the central couple are strong performances from Enobarbus (Paul Jesson) and Octavius (John Nettles), and Sue Blane's majestic set cleverly alternates as Rome and Egypt, but much of the play remains unleavened.

Similar strengths and weakness attend Michael Attenborough's production of The Changeling in the Pit. At the centre of this gruesome Jacobean tragedy is a young Spanish woman, so desperate to escape a forced marriage that she enlists her servant to bump off her fiance - little expecting that his price will be her virginity. Cheryl Campbell and Malcolm Storry are compulsive as the central couple, she twitching with fear of discovery, yet intoxicated by her growing dependency on her depraved liaison with De Flores (played with animal cunning by Storry). Elsewhere, the production is thoughtful and smartly- paced, yet it only really goes knee-deep into this macabre swamp of passions.

'Studs' runs to 19 June (071-328 1000). For RSC details see listings opposite