THEATRE / Third time Lucie: The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol - Oxford Playhouse; Suicide and Manipulation - Finborough; Breaking the Bank - Lyric Hammersmith; Kit and the Widow - Vaudeville

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UNTIL LAST week it looked as though the main event in Manchester's City of Drama festival would be the closing of the Library Theatre, Britain's first post-war rep. But happily, the municipality relented and granted a temporary reprieve; so the news is not that Manchester has lost an old playhouse, but that it has gained a new one: the Dancehouse Theatre, a 430-seat receiving house quarried out of an Oxford Road cinema bang in the middle of town, which opened on Wednesday with a packed-out performance by the Theatre de Complicite.

The show is a peasant drama spanning the lifetime of two lovers from youthful rejection and exile to a fatal reunion when one has grown rich while the other is as poor as ever. No, Complicite was not palming Manchester off with a revival of Durrenmatt's The Visit. The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, adapted from a John Berger story, is a new piece; but, in the wake of Durrenmatt's despairing fable about the power of greed, it is fascinating to see the company tackling similar material from the opposite end of the moral spectrum.

The heroine of The Visit is a once-betrayed village beauty who returns as an avenging millionairess. Lucie, by contrast, is a dwarfish grotesque known as 'The Cocadrille' to her siblings, who suspect her of having the evil eye. Jean, the man she tempts into a night of love, bolts for the Americas for fear of being trapped by this hobgoblin, leaving her to be thrown out of the family farm and ostracised as a hovel-dwelling pariah. However, when he returns, broke as ever after 40 years in pursuit of El Dorado, Lucie has made her pile as an enterprising mushroom-picker and self-taught market-trader. This is the story of a survivor.

It is more than that, as you glean from Simon McBurney's opening speech on a down-stage line of empty shoes. Their owners are dead; but in this community, 'the dead surround the living, and the living are the core of the dead'. Lucie has two purgatorial lives as an outcast, and then embarks on her blissful third after a thief splits her head with an axe. McBurney's production evokes a world of brutal actuality which is also a place where the dead and the living co-exist. The performance overflows with pantomimic invention and transformation imagery. Personal narrative takes place in the context of work and ceremony; and the show draws no line between human, animal and vegetable life. A hip-bath doubles as a coffin and a blood tank where actors change into slaughtered pigs. The company merge into the vegetation, offering Lucie their branched fingers for her fruit-picking expeditions. Timber is the main animating agent in Tim Hatley's design: from the drudgery of chopping firewood to a scene of orgasm among the farm animals, sending their stalls flying over the stage; and finally to the raising of a roof- beam for the dead lovers' house. You follow the action's mutation through a single continuing element.

Otherwise the meaning of the piece is concentrated in Lilo Baur's marvellous title performance: a cackling, volcanically energetic figure, with a triangular face that can transmit elfin malice or radiate sexual invitation and sheer joy, she presents a creature of the earth before whom conventional judgements are dumb.

So, in different ways, do the other-worldly characters in Robert Young's Suicide and Manipulation. How do you respond to a girl who casually breaks a suicide date with her boyfriend, then discusses the rival merits of blowing his ashes through the air-conditioning system at Harrods or substituting them for salt in a tequila slammer? This is the first play in a season about 'damaged lives'. I emerged without discovering how these characters had been damaged by their allegedly booming careers in modelling and environmental art. But Young has an undeniable gift for caustic surprise which serves him well when the dead lover (William Marsh) strikes back. 'Hi,' he says breezily when Helen (Lesley Vickerage) walks into the studio, finding him hanging upside down kitted out as a trainee angel. He tempts her over to the other side and the show fades out with a television preview of Heaven, said to compare favourably with Willy Wonkaland. It certainly has no contact with anything on Earth.

Breaking the Bank is Eleanor Zeal's tribute to John Law, the 18th-century Edinburgh gambler and duellist who created the Royal Bank of France. I had never heard of him, and sat agog at the sight of this jail-breaking chancer gate-crashing the court of the French Regent with promises to liquidate the national debt, and revolutionising the country's finances with the unheard-of innovations of paper money, credit, company flotation and futures

investment. For the benefit of other fiscal illiterates, Luke Williams (Law) periodically nods to the house to emphasise the important bits, and snaps 'Do keep up]' when his speculative imagination is racing ahead.

Taking the banking arguments on trust, Andrew Holmes's Empty Space Company production offers an exhilarating, high-precision piece of comic-strip history combined with modern Stock Exchange body language. Four actors play a crowd of Parisians, and thanks to costume changes and facial masks, there is no confusing Adam Fahey's giggling Regent with his doss-house gamester, or Richard Cherry's leering court banker with his performance as Law's devoted coachman. The company also supplies its own vigorous contrapuntal choruses (by the resourceful Fratelli brothers).

In telling Law's story, Miss Zeal has not managed to resist the legend of the South Sea Bubble, so that it emerges as a warning against charlatans dealing in fairy gold. This is repeatedly contradicted by specific details which are left unresolved. What does come over with memorable force is the portrait of an incorrigible gambler who sincerely believed he was working for the common good. Keynes should be so lucky.

As usual, the cabaret partnership of Kit and the Widow had me grinding my teeth for the first half-hour. How Binkie Beaumont would have loved these camp numbers about lady bishops, sieg-heiling Germans, lunacies of modern art and nasty foreigners sneaking through our tunnel. Then you start noticing the amazingly extended rhymes, the formidable musicianship, the rock-solid comic technique and the fact that sometimes - as in 'Caravans', a glorious hate number - they score the kind of bull's-eye that immortalised Flanders and Swann. You can't quarrel with this level of accomplishment.

'The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol' is on tour, currently at Oxford Playhouse, 0865 798600. 'Suicide and Manipulation', Finborough, 071-373 3842. 'Breaking the Bank', Lyric Hammersmith, 081-741 8701. 'Kit and the Widow', Vaudeville, 071-836 9987.

(Photograph omitted)