Theatre: The wrong, the short and the tall

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Private Lives

Lyttelton, London

Dogs Barking

The Bush, London

The Cosmonaut's Last Message

Lyric Studio, London

There's one department lurking in the bureaucratic labyrinth of the National that puzzles me. I can see the point of archive, casting, catering, front of house, bookshop and so on, but what about the "scripts" department you see listed in the programmes? In a year in which the best new play that the National has been able to come up with - Hanif Kureishi's Sleep With Me - was fifth-rate, it has now decided that the way to mark Noel Coward's centenary is with a revival of his achingly familiar . Surely the four people who work in scripts could have read more widely?

Of course is a beautifully constructed comedy - about an ex-husband, Elyot, and his ex-wife, Amanda, who find that they have booked adjacent rooms on their second honeymoons. Their next discovery is that they still love each other as much as they loathe each other. The main contribution that Philip Franks's revival makes to Coward's acute take on the contradictions of sexual attraction is to cast a short Elyot and a tall Amanda and to make his short Elyot a bit fey and preening and his tall Amanda a bit husky and domineering. It gets them away from doing imitations of Coward and Gertrude Lawrence.

The result is diverting, if never quite hilarious. That's partly because the cast tackle these roles with the same detailed intensity they would bring to Hedda Gabler. Every drop of emotion gets wrung, out of the text first, and then out of the subtext. Naturally, this takes time. The emotional weight the two leads bring is at odds with the ideal of flippancy which the characters proudly proclaim.

Juliet Stevenson is very funny as Amanda when she first sees her ex-husband. Her series of eye movements amounts to a mini-drama of its own. But her sensual histrionics, the way she rests her chin on her raised shoulder, looks like a stab at glamour rather than the thing itself. This kind of reckless vivacity doesn't spring naturally from her. Anton Lesser plays Elyot with a broad exasperated bitchiness, so that an insult isn't driven home with as fine a stiletto-point as it requires. Dominic Rowan makes Victor staunchly dull (as he should be) and Rebecca Saire is pinched and wan as the new young wife, Sybil.

But playing Coward isn't the same as acting characters in other plays. The job has more to do - in the leading roles, at least - with sheer force of personality. Amanda and Elyot elevate bickering to a minor art form. That's why sits oddly in subsidised theatre. These were roles written for stars rather than actors. It's West End producers who should be casting these roles.

If any of the cast of Richard Zajdlic's Dogs Barking have trouble with their accommodation during the play's run at the Bush they could always rent the set. It's a fully equipped kitchen-cum-living room with a sofabed. The taps, the kettle, the cooker: they all work. There's a selection of paperbacks, CDs and a few bottles of wine. I didn't check the fridge, but I'm sure it was stocked.

You probably know Zajdlic's work better than you know his name. Zajdlic wrote two episodes in the first series of This Life and "storylined" the second series, writing the opening and closing episodes. It's a safe bet the characters in Dogs Barking sat around watching This Life.

The set-up is promising: an ex-boyfriend stays the night on the sofa- bed and announces the next morning that he doesn't intend to leave. The two of them have a joint mortgage and after a five-year relationship he intends to have his share.

Zajdlic is after raw emotional grittiness. We suspect this in the opening moments, in Mike Bradwell's persuasive production, from the way we have to sit and listen to the kettle boiling. Five minutes in, the guy accuses his ex-girlfriend of "sucking a better class of dick now". Any chance that this might be a witty romantic comedy, about two people who don't get on sharing a flat, is dashed. Explicitness is the enemy of romance and Dogs Barking homes in on sour truth-telling.

But it would be hard to remain resistant to a play in which two of the main characters fight over a copy of this newspaper. The strength in Dogs Barking lies in its cattiness, as one character winds up another. There's a good moment when Alex (Raquel Cassidy) adjusts her stockings and does her make-up in front of her ex-boyfriend while telling him of her new sexual adventurousness.

As Neil, the ex-boyfriend, Tony Curran's febrile malevolence declares itself too early, closing down the play's options. Zajdlic isn't going to detain us with the mechanics of two people who hate each other sharing a flat or the legal niceties of a joint mortgage. With only four characters, that leaves few places we can go. Someone is going to have to sleep with someone or else we need some news. It's the latter. Just before the interval, Alex's sister Vicky (Caroline Catz) tells Neil that Alex is three months pregnant.

As soon as a character in a play gets pregnant, the one person who's genuinely in trouble is the playwright. There are are only three options - miscarriage, abortion or birth - and none of them pan out very well. The miscarriage is a cop-out. The abortion will threaten to overwhelm any other theme. The birth of a baby will force the audience to listen to a tape-recording of gurgles. After some sharply-written scenes, Zajdlic opts for an outburst of violence that scarcely resolves either the legal, medical or emotional strands.

The rising young Scottish playwright David Greig has four plays opening this year. The first, directed by Vicky Featherstone for Paines Plough, is distinguished at once by its title, The cosmonaut's last message to the woman he once loved in the former Soviet Union. In it, Greig approaches the theme of non-communication from an inspiringly varied number of angles that include two cosmonauts floating in outer space. Many of the 42 scenes are characteristic of Greig's oblique, witty and unpredictable take on the world. But too many are not.

`': Lyttelton, SE1 (0171 452 3000); `Dogs Barking': Bush, W12 (0181 743 3388) to 5 June; `Cosmonaut's Last Message': Lyric Studio, W6 (0181 741 2311) to 29 May, then touring.