Always: look on the bright side of life

THEATRE
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Back cover of the international bestseller Wallis, which claims to offer the scandalous truth about the century's "most infamous" woman, speaks of her attempts to bring about the fall of Britain to Hitler and the "amorous" techniques that she learnt in China that "awakened the Duke's dormant sexuality and left him helpless in her power". You only need to read the blurb of Charles Higham's biography of the Duchess of Windsor to see what a racy subject she would make for a musical. Always, a new West End show about Edward and Mrs Simpson, passes over these aspects and presents us instead with "the greatest love story of the century".

Edward and Mrs Simpson make an odd choice for this particular "greatest" slot. Romeo didn't hang around Verona in a double-breasted suit, saying "Do you think I'm a silly old thing?" Nor did a socially ambitious Juliet get an invite and exclaim: "I really think I'm on my way." For Edward (broad-shouldered Clive Carter) is a dithery, insecure playboy, and Wallis (brisk, elegant Jan Hartley), it seems, is after a bit more than domestic love. Mountbatten (Chris Humphreys) cheerfully describes Wallis as a "gold-digger", and if she were played that way the role would have a certain classical neatness: in getting what she wanted, she would lose what she wanted. Her dim husband Ernest (David McAlister) registers a legitimate complaint in a typically leaden couplet: "Why are you so caught up in this Royal life?/ I've had enough of sharing my wife." Elsewhere in Always criticism of the couple is muted because - as we plod through 28 scenes, from their first meeting at the Silver Jubilee Ball in 1931 to 1937, after the abdication - we are supposed to be rooting for the Windsors. Well it's been tough for them: in a very Nineties way, we discover that she suffers from low self- esteem and he suffers from bad parenting. And who are the baddies? A few token appearances from Stanley Baldwin (James Horne) looking like a bibulous butler hardly catches the enormous pressures of the period. William May and Jason Sprague, who wrote the book, the lyrics and the music, have mistaken a series of well-known events for a plot, and neither the things that brought the Windsors together nor the things that kept them apart are intelligently dramatised. The result is snobbish and flat-footed.

Few figures look less likely to sock us a big number than the stiff-backed Edward VIII: "Destiny. Duty. Responsibility," he declares, unrewardingly. Frank Hauser and Thommie Walsh's insipid direction ensures we know we're in France when a man with a beret and red scarf comes on with an accordion. Sheila Ferguson, formerly lead singer with the Three Degrees, forcefully delivers a nightclub number, "Love's Carousel", which provides the evening's mulchy generalised theme. The moment when dutiful Welsh miners doff caps, tug forelocks and sing "Long May You Reign" enters the pantheon of hokiness.

When the Royal Court rewrote British Theatre in the 1950s, it swept aside a number of seemingly conventional dramatists whose plays now appear just as worthwhile as the ones that so noisily took their place. A good example is Rodney Ackland's autobiographical play After October, which was premiered in 1936 and then slightly rewritten in the Eighties. It centres round a young playwright living in Hampstead whose family pin their hopes on the success of his first play.

In the Chichester revival now at Greenwich, Keith Baxter's production soon calms down - after an unneccesarily hectic opening - to allow Ackland's principal talent to take over: one striking character after another enters, each bringing in a particular ambience. We are revisiting a precisely observed and now forgotten world, where maths is "arithmetic", people "beetle off", and sandwiches have their crusts cut off and little white flags stuck in them.

In this impoverished bohemian atmosphere, well evoked by the grimy, stained living room walls (designer: Robin Don), we meet a gallery of sharply drawn individuals. Dorothy Tutin is excellent as the indulgent mother, an ex-musical comedy actress, who can't resist breaking into nostalgic routines, and Nick Waring (Tutin's son) sensitively catches the ardent young playwright.The cleaning lady Mrs Batley (Sheila Bernette) keeps her hat on indoors as a sign that she isn't in service. The sour poet Oliver Nashwick (a memorably eccentric Murray Melvin) scrounges money, cadges cab rides, and knocks back someone else's glass of hock. The fraught manicurist (Samantha Holland) has the Thirties ventriloquist's art of talking without moving her lips, as if communicating were physically painful. This revival proves again that nothing survives like character.

In All Things Considered, Ben Brown's first full-length play, which premiered at Scarborough last year, a philosophy don tries to kill himself. He turns out the lights in his college flat, pours himself a scotch, tips some pills on to the desk and puts a polythene bag over his head. Then the phone rings.

Brown's clever and entertaining play owes something to Simon Gray's superior Otherwise Engaged, another donnish drama with a stream of interruptions. Killing yourself isn't easy when people keep dropping in. The chirpy electrician (Neil Percival) needs to do some rewiring. A lecherous colleague, Ronnie (Michael Lumsden), has women problems. An ebullient American student (Holly Hayes) has a paper that needs reading. A young journalist from the Guardian (a deliciously insouciant Jane Slavin) wants to grill him about his marriage. A librarian, played superbly by Susie Blake as the sort of pained middle-aged woman who avoids eye contact by talking to the furniture, thinks she's pregnant.

Christopher Godwin gives a lovely study in quiet frustration as the don determined on doing himself in: a tall, bearded, quixotic-looking figure, he is approaching his 50th birthday with no children and an ex-wife who has published a book detailing his failings as a husband. He has considered "the ultimate philosophical problem" from every angle. As one after another of the visitors challenge his right to his own point of view, Brown whisks us through the arguments for and against suicide: a sort of Coles Notes on applied ethics. Godwin has heard it all before and his position is coolly rational: "I'm not depressed," he says. "I merely want to kill myself." A very promising debut.

'Always': Victoria Palace, SW1 (0171 834 1317). 'After October': Greenwich, SE10 (0181 858 7755), to 19 Jul. 'All Things Considered': Hampstead, NW3 (0171 722 9301), to 5 Jul.

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