Those aren't actors, they're ninepins

THEATRE

In Private Lives, the second of three plays that Mike Alfreds' company, Method and Madness, is presenting at the Lyric Hammersmith, the part of the French maid, Louise, is cut. A small detail, you might think, but Coward was a master of economy, and if he needed another actress on the payroll - just to play a tiny scene where she enters a Paris flat with French bread and lettuce, draws the curtains and says, "Bonjour" - there was probably a reason.

While Alfreds' slim revival is quite funny, stylish and attractively designed (by Paul Dart), moment after moment it falls short of fulfilling the play's genius. The small disappointments run from Elyot's first entrance in white suit, white shirt and white tie (which hardly look like travelling clothes, and therefore give no sense of him having just arrived), right through to Coward's final, blissful stage direction, which Alfreds changes without improving.

With Method and Madness the same quartet of actors perform in all three of the season of plays. They are, naturally, an ensemble. Private Lives, however, was written for Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. There was nothing ensemble about it. The other two main characters were, in Coward's words, "little better than ninepins". One of the ninepins was Laurence Olivier.

In Alfreds' cast the "ninepins" are strongly motivated. Martin Marquez plays Victor with stentorian bewilderment, keeping his chin firmly attached to his shirt collar and speaking English as if it was his second language, while Geraldine Alexander is pluckily combative as the other unfortunate newly-wed, Sibyl.

Everything hinges, though, on the divorcees. As Amanda, the imperiously elegant Abigail Thaw has hints of Penelope Keith, while as her ex-husband, Simon Robson is a bit too self-consciously foppish and raises his voice - to defend flippancy, of all things - when he need only raise his eyebrow. Amanda and Elyot are more than star vehicles. They are virtuoso ones. Act Two alone contains a 40-minute duologue, where bitching, cossetting and mock threats of domestic violence are transformed into a minor art form. It requires personality acting of a high order. The one thing you cannot act is personality.

When Coward wooed Lawrence back after an argument, he sat at the Steinway downstage and played a medley of musical-comedy tunes. He sang, she sang. He declared, "You're the most thrilling exciting woman that was ever born." When Robson (Elyot) woos Thaw (Amanda), he sits at a piano that is positioned behind the sofa, so that we do not see him miming at the keyboard. It doesn't quite have the same panache. The irresistible has become resistible. It's not enough to be a competent actor. There are probably only a dozen actors in the country who can make Private Lives work.

The gentle hum in the background is the sound of this reviewer quietly backpedalling. Several months ago, I welcomed Serving It Up, a first play by 22-year-old David Eldridge, which presented the raw, violent loyalties that exist between young unemployed men in Hackney. What was striking about Eldridge's debut was that he was more concerned with empathising with his characters than moralising about them. Last month, we featured Eldridge in this paper as a young playwright to watch.

Well, not too closely, not too soon. His new play, A Week With Tony, also deals with a group of right-wing thinkers. This time the Doc Martens have been traded in for loafers, the Sun for the Mail.

On the Finborough stage, which itself would hardly be big enough for one of the public-school characters to park a Range Rover, Eldridge ambitiously assembles a cast of 13 actors for a satirical look at the worlds of politics and social ambition that come together at a Tory wedding. A Week With Tony has a distinct Eighties feel: Mrs Thatcher remains a heroic off-stage character.

We follow Tony (Ric Morgan), a former East End lad, who made money (then lost it) and became a Tory councillor. This particular week in Tony's life sees the build-up to the pounds 40,000 wedding that he is throwing for his acquisitive daughter Elizabeth (Celia Robertson). She's marrying Henry (Theo Fraser Steele), a genial goof from the City who only takes off his pinstripe to put on a kitchen apron. Tony's problem is that he has run out of money.

Eldridge sketches in this world with predictable details - Ascot-style hats, champagne bottles, and confessions to having cried when Thatcher got the boot. The details are broad and unconvincing. The shopping bags look a good deal more attractive than the clothes the cast wear. Henry's father arrives from a Masonic meeting looking nothing like the Masons who congregate in London's Long Acre. It's difficult to trust the material, which lurches into the ludicrous. Henry arrives with a black eye claiming someone has hit him with a Toblerone.

Eldridge ends up doing in A Week With Tony just what he skilfully avoided doing in Serving It Up. He patronises his characters. If Tories are so stupid, you wonder, how come they always end up on the winning side?

Tolstoy told Chekhov that he disliked his plays even more than he disliked Shakespeare's. His criticism of Uncle Vanya, in particular, was that "It doesn't go anywhere". In (Uncle) Vanya, which reached London for one week only, Howard Barker decides to take it somewhere. Barker has a habit of reversing expectations (we expect nothing less of him) and his Vanya refuses to wallow in "toxic resentment". In Chekhov's version, Act Three ends with Vanya firing his revolver at Serebriakov, the retired professor. He misses, and sinks into a chair exhausted. In Barker's version, Vanya doesn't miss. Serebriakov dies. Vanya fights his way through to a passionate, engaged life. He refuses, for a start, to be called by the diminutives of "uncle" or "Vanya". It's Ivan, please.

(Uncle) Vanya might have been a more exhilarating reversal of Chekhov's themes if it had followed Chekhov's stagecraft more closely. But this production, directed by the author, has a highly charged, hallucinatory quality that left me numb. It was like watching a dramatised essay: for the invigorating power of anger, against the emasculating qualities of pity and virtue. Barker may seek to deny theatre's role as either entertainment - he has described that elsewhere as a "nightmare" - or as consolation. The two reasons most people go. To criticise (Uncle) Vanya for failing to offer the usual diet would be like a vegetarian complaining about his meal in an Angus Steak House.

Theatre details: Going Out, page 10.

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