Theatre: The wits who outwit Brecht

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The Independent Culture
Mr Puntila and His Man Matti

Traverse

Love Upon the Throne

Nothing But Pleasure

A Soldier's Song Assembly

As often as not, what happens on the Fringe looks more calculated to succeed than the experimental work going on in the Official Festival. Take one successful comedy duo with a West End hit. Mix with a little known play by Brecht. Add a director and actors from theatre de complicite. Stir in a new translation by a young Hollywood writer. Mmm. Smells just right for Edinburgh.

, at the Traverse, is a play about a master and a servant. If Brecht is the master here, then director Kathryn Hunter and her company are the servants (of the text, naturally). In the best tradition of Jeeves-Wooster relationships, it's the servants who end up dictating the circumstances. This new Almeida/right size co-production works best when it outwits Brecht and spins off on riffs of its own.

The right size - Hamish McColl and Sean Foley - brought their surreal comedy Do You Come Here Often? to the Vaudeville in London earlier this year. With his blank expressions and sturdy phlegmatism Foley's working- class Matti is a neat foil to the Groucho-esque excesses of McColl's land-owning Puntila. McColl's eyes bulge, his hair stands on end, he hollahs and harumphs, as he veers between friendliness and fury. Both states are alarming. His stops his daughter Eva (Hayley Carmichael) marrying the diplomatic toff (a vivid cameo from Harry Gostelow) and tries to get her to marry Matti. Only when Foley pats her on the backside does the hilariously prim Carmichael realise this isn't going to work.

Everyone here goes for broke. The translator Lee Hall revs up Brecht's script as if he's got his hands on a old motorbike and Tim Hatley's collapsible designs provide a show-stealing climax. If Mr Puntila is top-of-the-range drama for the fringe, some of the scrappier blocking will require more indulgence when the show travels south to the Almeida in October.

Probably the youngest writer to have a full-length play on at the Festival is the 19-year-old Friedrich Schiller. His first play, The Robbers, was a big hit with the disaffected young when it was produced in 1782. In the Glasgow Citizens' production for the official Festival, Philip Prowse takes the bold step of casting one actor to play both of the warring brothers. Benedick Bates (Alan's son) is handsome and authoritative with a good line in melodramatic chilliness. Only he hangs onto words, savouring them at the front of his mouth, which saps Schiller of some of his urgency.

There's distinguished support from the spectral Murray Melvin as the priest, and one Glasgow Citz director Giles Havergal as the father and another Glasgow Citz director, the play's translator Robert David Macdonald, as the pastor. But Prowse handles best the band of robbers hiding out in the forests of Bohemia. This credible modern-dress group are staged with a rare designer's eye. Elsewhere the ornate King's Theatre isn't the right venue for Prowse's spare style. To compensate, he rolls around enough dry ice to show up on Lothian's weather map.

After staging such minor fracas as The Charge of the Light Brigade and The French Revolution, the National Theatre of Brent takes on the Charles and Diana story in Love Upon the Throne. It's inspired. Two actors play all the characters in a kitschy royal drawing room. Royal titles become completely silly (The Princess Theatre Royal, and so on). When Charles rings Prince Philip he has to explain who he is. Wonderfully daft. As Desmond Olivier Dingle, Patrick Barlow perfectly captures the lip-twitching deference of royal commentators, while, as his nerdy trainee assistant Raymond, John Ramm rebels against the oppressive smugness of his partner in a way that parallels Diana's struggles with the Palace.

In Nothing But Pleasure David Benson goes one step further and satirises Diana, Princess of Wales's funeral. He takes a while to get there. He sings, does impressions and suggests that only when we are able to laugh about a tragedy can we fully recover from it. It's a big hole to dig for yourself in the aftermath of the Omagh bomb. When he gets on to Diana's funeral, his one-man show takes off. There's enough sentiment and showbiz on display for the bitchiest commentator. With his tidy waspiness Benson wittily reconstructs the queues to sign the books, the tabloid demands to show-us-you-care, the Queen going on TV, Tony Blair reading from Corinthians and the wave of applause that met Earl Spencer's address. This could be his whole show.

The fringe veteran Guy Masterson, who has four productions up here, adapts and performs Ken Lukowiak's account of serving with 2 Para in the Falklands War. Waves lap, helicopters whirr and bombs explode: other than sound effects the indefatigable Masterson has only the odd prop and lighting cue to take us from Goose Green to Port Stanley. He's mined Lukowiak's book for powerful episodes and dramatised them with impressive integrity and humour. But I wish he'd cut back on the preachy moments. We all know what to think.

: Traverse (0131 228 1404), to 5 Sept; then touring. Love Upon the Throne, Nothing But Pleasure & A Soldier's Song: Assembly (0131 226 2428) to 5 Sept.

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