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THEATRE / True blue, and over the top

WHAT MADE some members of the audience at the Liverpool Playhouse walk out of Lysistrata? Billed enthusiastically as the rudest comedy ever, Aristophanes' play, written during the Peloponnesian War in 411BC, has the women of Athens and Sparta taking steps to end the war. They deny the men sex and take charge of the money supply. Defensive this may be: offensive it's not.

Sir Peter Hall puts the cast in masks like painted faces - standard practice in Aristophanes' day but a risk now. This switches the attention to the physical characteristics - the stoops, the swaggers, the knockout blows and the infamous erections. The masks become the springboard for a broad, comic tone.

The women are Victorian painted dolls: all bosoms, bodices and bustles, whooping it up, waving dildoes and (the older ones) throwing up their skirts at the army and farting. Like meets like, for the men are old farts too: blimpish figures, with umbrellas and handlebar moustaches - a Dad's Army of hunched, scrawny decrepits. (It's an odd aspect of Lysistrata that the men who protest the most about the sex ban don't look as if the sap is going to rise that far.)

Ranjit Bolt's constantly witty translation never allows a rib to go unnudged. It's all true blue. But the money side is important too. The military campaign, as one of Bolt's rhyming pentameters tells us, means financial gain.

This Lysistrata draws as deeply on vaudeville as it does on ancient Greece. The choruses are delivered as pastiche songs (crooning ballads, hymns and marches). Each punch in the fight scene gets a drumbeat or clash of cymbals. Hall takes us to the end of the pier, with a hefty nod to the slapstick routines of the silent era. In mixing everything up, though, he produces something with a raucously entertaining flavour of its own. He goes over the top, but not as far over as Aristophanes.

When they reach the parabasis, where the Athenian actors took off their masks and launched into attacks on contemporary politicians, there is an opportunity for genuine surprise. Bolt could be inserting new material every night. But he backs away, offering only a few tame generalities.

It isn't hard discerning the cast behind the masks. With her strong, bright-eyed attack, Geraldine James has the right decisive presence for Lysistrata, who organises the boycott. A natural headgirl, James has to be as tough on the women as she is on the men. Everyone, including herself, is suffering from the sex ban. She catches both sides well: 'I'm a leaderene who wants to be a tart.'

As Myrrhina, Diane Bull slips into her best Ayckbourn squeaks and purrs, teasing her husband, Kinesias (Timothy Davies), who's so desperate that he'll 'kill for peace'. Bull has Davies lying on the sand, and as she alternately reveals and covers her fake breasts, his fake phallus rises and falls. Bull is well cast. There's something very British about this Athens: it's as rude as a seaside postcard. Those who caused a stir by walking out in Liverpool - doing the box office nothing but good - must have been friends of the producer's.

Watching the National's revival of Inadmissible Evidence, two possibilities spring to mind. One is that John Osborne's 1964 play offers an Everest of a part in Bill Maitland, the self-lacerating solicitor, and that Trevor Eve, though an attractive actor, is no Nicol Williamson.

The other is that Trevor Eve turns in a highly effective performance, but the mountain is unclimbable. Osborne is unmatched as a purveyor of sour truths (a love affair has 'endless, wheedling obligations') and as a public dissector of emotional innards. Maitland speaks of 'the fibbing, mumping, pinched little worm of energy eating away in this me'. But this play is long. There's little story, the relationships are one- sided, and there's a wretched, paranoid, self-pitying central character, with whom we share more than three hours.

The case for Osborne is that Trevor Eve is not an existential actor. He simply doesn't have the stench of death in his nostrils. When he tells us of the glands trying to batter their way out of his neck, 'real big gobstoppers', we see only a hypochondriac. Eve is a brisk, well-groomed figure, clipping out his lines in a dry, rasping voice. Flicking his wrists, tweaking his ears and fingering his waistcoat pocket, he gives a strenuously energetic performance.

But there is a chasm between this showiness and the awesome glare of Osborne's contempt. When Eve reflects on his taste in women (muttering darkly, 'blonde, blonde, blonde') we remain in the shallows of his psyche. Osborne demands a whirlwind; Eve is only a stiff breeze.

Or so it seemed at the interval. The case for Eve grows in Act Two, dispelling the idea that he's best playing plausible types, not monsters of this magnitude. When he turns on his silent daughter for her 'vintage, swinging indifference' he almost convinces us that he is 'packed with spite and twitching with revenge'. He musters a livid spleen for his daughter when he says: 'You hardly drink.'

So often the action on the wide Lyttelton stage narrows down to one man falling to pieces over the phone. It looks as if it might be a radio play. But then, of course, both sides of the conversation would be heard, and this is, essentially, a monologue. You wonder why it isn't in the Cottesloe.

It's a pleasure to hear from the other characters, when we do. To learn of the fling that Maples (Jason Watkins) had in the back of the car with the sales manager from Kingston. Or the confession from Joy (Matilda Ziegler) that she likes sex constantly. Ziegler, so good in Women Laughing at the Royal Court, turns in another taut, pert performance.

Director Di Trevis sets the play firmly in the Sixties. Stephen Brimson Lewis's designs have curls of smoke drifting across the backdrops. In this shifting, nightmarish world, Osborne's voice stands out. 'It's inhuman to be capable of giving a decent account of oneself,' says Maitland. Osborne is a raw, compulsive autobiographer. But this indecent account of a man's life needs to gain a Williamson or lose an hour.

The Beijing Ju Opera Troupe's production of The Little Phoenix, seen this week in the LIFT festival, moves to Nottingham with dazzling proof of how Chinese theatre combines its skills. As the victorious female warrior, Wang Jing is winning in every way.

'Lysistrata': Old Vic (071-928 7616). 'Inadmissible Evidence': Lyttelton (071-928 2252). 'Little Phoenix': Nottingham Playhouse (0602 419419) Tues to Sat.

(Photograph omitted)

Irving Wardle writes this week in the Sunday Review, page 21.