Theatre: Thou shalt lie with mankind in Bedlam

Corpus Christi Bedlam, Edinburgh On the Whole It's Been Jolly Good Pleasance, Edinburgh Happy Birthday, Mister Deka D Traverse, Edinburgh Behind Closed Doors C Venue, Edinburgh Underground Venue 21, Edinburgh
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The Independent Culture
Terrence McNally's gay Christ play Corpus Christi opened to a storm of protest in New York last year. When Stephen Henry, director of Theatre 28, was asked about this, and the rumbling discontent prior to his own production, he said, "Americans wave placards. The British write letters." But some things aren't written in stone. On Monday, the pavement was lined with Baptists holding placards and thrusting leaflets. Edinburgh's Bedlam Theatre probably has never been so appropriate a venue.

The severity outside was little preparation for the camp-foolery of McNally's prologue. Thirteen good-looking, 20th-century boys are baptised into their stage-roles as disciples. They offer the audience flippant resumes of their past lives as architect or lawyer, masseuse or hustler. They draw lots for bit-parts ("Lazarus - at last!") and draw props from baskets: two fishes; 30 pieces of silver; three nails. Believe it or not, such symbols resonate; McNally's sprightly approach to the "old and familiar" story seems to promise much.

That such a promise wasn't betrayed is largely due to Henry's direction. Joshua/ Jesus grows up in 1950s Texas. He's picked on by jocks, picked up by Judas and tempted by James Dean in the desert. When he embraces his appointed role - and lots of men - he's crucified as "King of the Queers".

Henry manoeuvres the versatile cast with skill, and his thoughtful vision illuminates the biblical sections. All Joshua (Mel Raido) has to do amid the mania - whether comic or homophobic - is look downcast.

The message of love and tolerance is New Testament through and through. But the violence inflicted on outsiders in the name of archaic attitudes is a timeless damnation. McNally's incessant look-at-me irreverence means that Corpus Christi - as theatre, theology or treatise - has many shortcomings. But the protesters outside fully justified his motives.

What happens when, after 60 years' service, the country decides it no longer wants you or your message? In Peter Tinniswood's On the Whole It's Been Jolly Good, Leslie Phillips spends an hour in character as deposed Tory MP Sir Plympton Makepeace, recalling his inconsequential Commons career.

Or rather, Leslie Phillips spends an hour in character as himself: lovable rogue, irresistible smoothie, gentlemanly cad. Tinniswood composes his nostalgia from silver daggers and sweet-scented tributes, and though the script - and Phillips - flag towards the end, it's an hour well spent. Not least because you get to hear that inimitable fruity chortle.

In Biyi Bandele's Happy Birthday, Mister Deka D, an elderly man wearing a party hat sits motionless next to a table on which sits a birthday cake. A woman reads a paper lying on a pub bar. The doorbell rings. A man enters through a hatch in the floor, and a drill drowns out his words. Welcome to Told by an Idiot's world.

The 45-minute piece is intriguing, not least because a commissioned script is a departure for the company. Lika (Hayley Carmichael) and Trisk (Paul Hunter) start and finish each other's queries, pre-empt and conclude each other's thoughts and throw a series of perceptive and painful non-sequiturs at each other. They were once lovers. They know each other well. The rules of logic - natural and narrative - are short-circuited, and lesser talents would ruin its rhythm entirely. Meanwhile, Mister Deka D sits and waits for his cake. It's his birthday every day. I wish him well.

Equally well-crafted is Terry Hughes's Behind Closed Doors. Two partnerships, divided by social class but linked by internal power struggles, are played out in a non-linear sequence. The acting is superb, the writing taut, the subject matter harsh and brutal. It makes for a chillingly controlled 90 minutes. Anything more would give the disturbing game away.

Hughes, figuratively speaking, could give Richard Morton Jack and Tobias Beer a good kicking. The latter pair won the 1999 Cameron Mackintosh new writing award for Underground, advertised as "a harrowing hour of relentless, gut-churning grit". Their take on the Krays would benefit from less ill-judged farce and more ill-meaning fear. The young cast were always on to a loser in the menacing stakes; with one of Ronnie and Reggie's henchmen played by a fresh-faced chap called Crispin Chatterton, suspending disbelief was never an option.

`Corpus Christi', to 28 Aug; `Jolly Good', to 30 Aug; `Deka D', to 4 Sept; `Behind Closed Doors', to 30 Aug; `Underground', to 29 Aug. Fringe Box Office: 0131 226 5138