There's more to life than train-spotting

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The Independent Culture
The overall menu at Glasgow's 1996 Mayfest is as rich and varied as ever. Of the new work on view, one of the most audacious productions must be Andy Arnold's Blood and Water at the Arches Theatre.

Blood and Water is an adaptation of Mayakovsky's little-known 1918 play Mystery-Bouffe, a kind of modernist allegorical epic, in which a cast of 60 celebrated the hopes of their embryonic revolutionary society. Mayakovsky also left an open invitation to future adapters of his piece to "make its contents that of their time, their own day, their own moment". So Arnold has found a metaphor for the fin-de- siecle mood of the 1990s, replacing optimistic workers of the world with a gaggle of displaced citizens on a leaky raft off the coast of Kamchatka, a kind of allegorical migration of souls searching for a safe haven.

With a cast of 10, doubling for all their worth, and original music by Vivien Stanshall, Arnold creates an ensemble performance of distinctive and unusual flavour. Soul migration of a different kind is a pre-occupation of Tony Kushner's Angels in America (Part One - Millennium Approaches) at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, the final port of call in a tour by Scotland's 7:84 company, in association with Glasgow's Tron.

Iain Reekie's stylish production boasts a superbly bilious central performance from Michael Roberts as the homophobic, homosexual lawyer Roy Cohn, a powerful throbbing soundtrack by John Cobban, and a soaring set by designer Neil Warmington.

The play itself has been showered with awards on both sides of the Atlantic since its first appearance in 1991, and was rapturously received by the Saturday night Edinburgh audience. It remains difficult though, for this reviewer at least, to square the play's content with its reputation and reception. Kushner's ambition is unquestionable, focusing simultaneously on the hot topics of Aids, the rise of the new right in Reaganite multi- racial America, and the spiritual crisis engendered by the approach of the second millennium.

A married Mormon couple, a gay couple and Mr Cohn carry the plot along on parallel tracks, crossing over every so often so that Kushner's thematic concerns come into direct conflict. Thus liberal meets Reaganite; Valium-addicted, millennium-obsessed, mousy Mormon wife encounters drag queen dying of Aids, and so on. At the core of the play is a powerful drama about betrayal - personal, political and sexual - but Kushner leaves his threads unwoven and untied, preferring instead to digress into scenes of whimsical fancy or fantasy, depending on your point of view, hardly any one of which is integrated into the play's heart.

The Trick is to Keep Breathing, Michael Boyd's adaptation of Janice Galloway's novel, has been revived at Glasgow's Tron after its success there last autumn. Boyd's play tells the story, predominantly in the first person, of protagonist Joy, a teacher, who is teetering on the edge of mental collapse out of grief at the loss of her mother and her lover, both through drowning. Joy stops going to work, drinks a lot of gin, writes postcards to her friend Marianne in America, and seeks psychiatric help, not much of which is forthcoming.

Boyd "opens out" the book by giving Joy three separate selves, and back- projecting slices of the book's text on to screens, providing some of the most directly poignant moments of the evening. But despite Siobhan Redmond's committed and animated impersonation of Joy's hyperactive inner voice, the play, like Joy, steadfastly fails to connect with the outside world - a dilemma that is not helped by the fact that the characters around her seem to have stepped straight out of the stock drawer.

On a wider issue, one could ask whether it is in the best long-term interest of Scottish theatre for so many recent major productions - most of them admittedly commercial successes - to have been adaptations of novels rather than original work written specifically for the theatre. There's more to life than train- spotting. Which fact is exemplified by the work of Belfast's Dubbeljoint Productions, whose A Night in November (by Marie Jones) last week at the Citizens was a virtuoso display of the power of popular theatre. Dan Gordon's one-man performance of a Belfast Protestant's passage to enlightenment in the run-up to the 1994 World Cup moved magically from sharply observed suburban satire to completely infectious euphoria on the streets of New York.

n 'Blood and Water' is at the Arches Theatre, Glasgow until 25 May (0141-287 5511); 'Angels in America' is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh until 19 May (0131-228 1404); 'The Trick is to Keep Breathing' is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow until 25 May (0141-552 4267)

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