THEATRE / Two characters in search of a line

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A: WHERE are we?

B: We're here watching Michael Frayn's new play Here going on there.

A: But there's nothing on the stage.

B: Put a frame round nothing and it becomes a set. This is a set representing an empty room with two people, Cath and Phil, in a dramatic situation; perhaps they'll rent it.

A: They'd be at home there, they're practically invisible. They just keep repeating themselves and asking questions. Why can't they make their minds up?

B: They're starting their lives. Naturally they haven't much to say yet.

A: They might let us know where they've come from. They must have been doing something somewhere else before they came here.

B: It isn't that sort of play. It's about here and now, which as you know are primary components of deixis - the means whereby language gears itself to the speaker and receiver, and hence the basis of dramatic dialogue.

A: That's why they don't tell us who they are?

B: Exactly. Cath, Phil and the room are a tabula rasa, a blank page for experience to write on. This is a philosophic comedy.

A: Is that why they can't finish a sentence or decide about anything?

B: They will, once they've decided to rent the room.

A: Michael Blakemore's found two good actors: Teresa Banham and Iain Glen. All those different ways they have of saying 'I don't know,' it almost sounds like people talking.

B: They'll change. They'll get some experience, shared memories . . .

A: Get some furniture in?

B: Yes, construct some meaning out of their environment, and then change into characters.

A: Not before time.

B: Here comes the landlady; you see, it's happening already.

A: It's Brenda Bruce. Not seen her for a bit. She's no tabula rasa.

B: Right. You see that old chair of her husband's she's giving them?

A: What about it?

B: That chair is the past and the future. To us the room is an empty space; to her, it's full of memories.

A: At least she has proper speeches; better than all that one-word ping-pong. We're getting to know quite a lot about her Eric. It's a pity he isn't in the play.

B: But he is.

A: He's dead.

B: His story lives on.

A: How he fused the washing machine and had his lung out?

B: I mean the essential story of their marriage. That first love fades into habit and boredom until the only excitement is finding some grievance to put your partner in the wrong. That's her message to Cath and Phil.

A: I thought you said this was a philosophic play.

B: That depends on whether they accept her deterministic viewpoint.

A: They seem to be accepting it all right. They're not leaping on to the bed any more or climbing into the same jumper. He's picking his nose.

B: It's a transition point. The novelty has worn off and they're wondering where to go next.

A: They're stuck where they are. 'Let's get out of here,' they said, 'get right away from it all . . . anywhere.' Anywhere? What about here? And they start exploring the room as if they've been parachuted into the Parthenon.

B: It's a game. They're learning to control their relationship with games. Like Cath's ventriloquist routine with the toy dog.

A: The dog's my favourite character.

B: And you notice how the room reflects their discovery of the territorial imperative. They've carved it up into units, and Phil has claimed his personal space.

A: Behind that curtain where he goes to sulk? It's not surprising they're bored. They haven't even got a washing machine to fuse. They've nothing to talk about. And every time they start getting it together in bed that old bat comes hammering on the door.

B: You see, they have changed.

A: You're repeating yourself.

B: They have tit-for-tat quarrels, they put on a funny mask to give each other a fright; Phil even cries. That's a step forward.

A: But it still sounds as if they're making it up as they go along, and never having the nerve to say yes to any idea that comes up.

B: That's how most people do live, and meanwhile the clock ticks away.

A: What is the time, by the way?

B: I wish you'd stop asking me questions.

A: I feel I've been here for a lifetime. Not one laugh all night. I'm bored, I'm sick of the routine, I want to get away.

B: Michael Frayn is a wonderful comic writer, and this human comedy would have Martians rolling in the aisles. But seen at close range by you and me, the joke does seem to be on us.

Here and Now would make an alternative title for Alan Ayckbourn's Time of My Life, which arrives in the West End (directed by Ayckbourn) much improved from the Scarborough production I noticed sniffily last year. Charting the decline of a large family business, it combines a single setting (by Roger Glossop) with a dual time scheme. It opens in the present tense with a fatal birthday party for the clan's matriarch in a restaurant, and then moves symmetrically into the past and the future with parallel lunch scenes for her two hopeless sons and their womenfolk. It is clear from the start that Glyn is all set to abandon his wife again; and that Adam's hairdresser girlfriend will arouse Mummy's killer instinct.

Thanks partly to Gwen Taylor, who gets to the heart of this possessive dragon without overshadowing the rest of the play, all kinds of ironies and surprises emerge that I missed last time: from Terence Booth's performance as the entire restaurant staff, to Glyn's last- minute decision not to kiss his wife goodbye as his mistress has arrived at the window. There are lovely performances by Richard Garnett (the evasively laughing Glyn), Anton Rodgers and Sophie Heyman, each demonstrating Ayckbourn's astonishing ability to devise a tight formal scheme inside which individual character and free-wheeling comic invention proliferate as if there were no scheme at all.

Julius Caesar, the RSC's latest regional touring show, is a modern- dress promenade production. This means that you are stampeded into viewing one of the most sympathetic plays ever written about politicians as a parable for the venality of today's politics. A soldier was weeping next to me during the funeral oration, and it was all I could do not to offer him a Kleenex; promenading undoes the necessary division between spectator and event. The plus is that it can theatricalise the entire space, as it does in David Thacker's production. The storm scene, the assassination, the mutinying mob all release a fierce, all-embracing choreography that reaches its climax in the usually anti-climactic second half, so the battle scenes become a sequence of Goyaesque horrors confirming Antony's prophesy over Caesar's corpse, and supplying one authentic link with the modern world.

Jeffery Kissoon's scowling bombastic Brutus leaves you feeling that Rome was lucky to escape his clutches. The other leads - David Sumner's flesh-pressing Caesar, Barry Lynch's wary, masked Antony - are first-rate. Rob Edwards's Cassius, changing from a jumpy malcontent and ecstatic plotter to a light-hearted man of honour after the tent-scene confession, is among the best I have seen.

Three teenagers occupy the foreground of Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing. Leah (Sophie Stanton) has been thrown out of school. Jamie (Mark Letheren) has a sexy mother who neglects him; Ste (Jonny Lee Miller) a father who beats him up. They live on a council estate (designed in detailed concrete squalor by Robin Don), and things look bleak, even before the two boys wind up in bed together. Then it dawns that nothing terrible is happening, nobody is being incurably damaged, the kids are often very funny, true love can flourish here like the pot plants outside Jamie's front door, and a good story can turn expectations inside out.

'Here': Donmar, 071-867 1150. 'Time of My Life': Vaudeville, 071- 836 9987. 'Caesar': Other Place, Stratford, 0789 295623. 'Beautiful Thing': Bush, 081-743 3388.