THEATRE / Under new orders: Jeffrey Wainwright reviews Saint Joan at Theatr Clwyd and Forty Years On at the WYP, Leeds

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The Independent Culture
Shaw's Saint Joan is always identified with its eponymous heroine, but in fact the play has surprisingly little interest in her. Perhaps this is as it should be: Shaw's point is that neither friend nor foe cares about anything other than how she might serve their interests. France and England, Church and State lower massively over her: she is first a convenient, then an inconvenient speck.

This is embodied very clearly in the imagery of Gale Edwards' new production for Theatr Clwyd, Mold. Peter J Davison's set with its guillotine openings and the copious bolts of solemn black in which Clare Mitchell costumes the ranks of nobles and ecclesiastics dwarf Imogen Stubbs's maid.

With a ginger crop and a Geordie accent - an interesting, courageous choice this - Stubbs's fatal incongruity could not be more marked. Evidently little more than a child as she dashes to glimpse a kingfisher, she has the same open navity when she says she'll not look back to see if the soldiers are following her. Stubbs plays her as a tomboy, wiping her nose with her fist as she goes to the stake, and is more convincing than the usual mystical Joan. But this is all she is - Shaw dedicated the rest of his energies to what really interested him: subjecting the pretensions of politics and religion to his sceptical modern temper.

The scepticism of the moderns is also on view in Alan Bennett's Forty Years On at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds. Here Franklin (David Firth), the headmaster-elect of Albion House, a minor public school, has devised an end-of-term revue that satirises several of the cultural monuments of 20th-century England. Many of the parodies - especially of Bloomsbury, Bertrand Russell and a double-decker Ottoline Morrell are wickedly transfixing and the whole shares the gloriously hammy irreverence of Round the Horn.

We are, of course, broadly on Franklin's side against the retiring headmaster whose belated Edwardian traditionalism, in Benjamin Whitrow's well-judged performance, is calcifying visibly about his lower back. But if, as the play makes clear, the Establishment's devotion to nation, duty and clean fingernails failed to save Albion House from being sold off to the developers, nor, by implication, has Franklin's new regime. The central paradox of the play is that the bumbling snobbery of the old order, regarded with some affection, is certainly more attractive and, for all its myopic hypocrisy, has more integrity than the inheriting speculators.

Jeremy Sams's revival relishes much of Bennett's glee in details, especially in the superb marshalling of the schoolboys. Their ensemble playing is beautifully confident and its particulars - the head boy (Gresby Nash) with his narrow stare and tiny black book, for example - lovingly realised. To hate something properly you have to know it well - and love it at least a little.

'Saint Joan' continues at Theatr Clwyd, Mold until 21 May (0352 755114) then tours; 'Forty Years On' continues at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds until 4 June (0532 442111)