High comedy brought low by funny business

THEATRE

THERE WAS was a time - round about the date, in fact, that Noel Coward went to a Beatles concert and couldn't understand why people were screaming during the songs - when people wondered whether Coward was really going to survive as a dramatist. Wasn't his work getting just a teensy bit out of date?

Today what is most likely to damage his posthumous career is overexposure. All you need to get Coward back in the West End are a couple of TV faces with brackets after their names telling you which TV show they appear in, and an available venue - such as the Aldwych, recently vacated by The Fields of Ambrosia.

The latest blow to Coward's appeal is Richard Olivier's feeble production of Present Laughter. The laboured jokes warn of what's in store: the "funny" way the maid (Josie Kidd) flicks her dustcloth at the furniture; the "funny" squeakiness with which the debutante Daphne (Fleur Bennett) speaks. The aspiring young playwright Roland (David Arneil) enters in duffle-coat and goatee beard, greeting everyone he meets with a "funny" handshake. This involves moving the other person's hand up to eye level then whipping it down to waist level. The first time he does this it isn't amusing. Sure enough, it's a running gag. Stop it now, I wanted to say. Coward's comedy isn't broad, it's high. When Peter Bowles, who plays the vain, womanising playwright Garry Essendine - the Noel Coward role - rips into Roland, telling him his play is a "meaningless jumble of adolescent pseudo-intellectual poppycock", he is wasting his breath. No one takes the twerp seriously anyway.

Peter Bowles is not unsuited to play Garry, as Sir Richard Scott might say. He nonchalantly scratches his forehead, inspects his gleaming shoes and suavely crosses his legs on the sofa. He also swivels out to the audience to do a "corblimey!" face. He may have picked up this last piece of business from Michael Barrymore. Bowles plays Gary Essendine and Peter Bowles (which is only fair; Coward was playing himself too). He's quick and appealing, but adrift in a company that plays Present Laughter as if it was See How They Run. A sure sign something is wrong is the way that the end of each act leaves us feeling deflated. The way it is acted and the way it is written rarely meet, let alone shake hands.

The late John Dexter agreed to do The Royal Hunt of the Sun when he saw the stage direction: "The men climb the Andes." The Romanian director Andrei Serban must have felt a similar challenge when he read David Lan's strange and elusive new play, The Ends of the Earth. Scene one takes place in a village square, scene two in a hotel bedroom and scene three "high in the mountains".

In Serban's highly atmospheric production, the designer Richard Hudson divides up the Cottesloe into rocky boulders, cafe and bedroom, and the action moves easily between the village and the mountains, the Balkans and London. Lan has been working on this play for 10 years, so it isn't a topical response to recent events. It centres instead on the mental breakdown of a young geologist, Daniel, played with nervy sincerity by Michael Sheen. His five-month-old daughter is seriously ill. Meanwhile he's building a dam for people who don't want it. When the wise local, Yosip (an impressive Karl Johnson), says he smokes too much, Danny quits.

Leave aside, for a moment, the fact that in the Balkans you'd need to have several fags in your mouth at the same time before anyone noticed you were smoking. For Danny, giving up is a gesture, a leap of faith, a step towards regaining control over his life, his way of saving his daughter's life. Yes, that's a lot to pin on one fag, but Lan sustains the metaphor well. Danny confronts his worries, sometimes in the starkest terms: "Life. What is it?" he asks his wife, Cathy (Samantha Bond), and then answers, "Life. Life is ... It's things happening to us, isn't it." The anguish is genuine, but as he struggles to articulate his point of view, we struggle in his wake. Cathy tells Danny that she loathes him and wants him to leave her. Then she says she doesn't believe what she just said. I kept admiring the breadth and intensity of Lan's themes - other playwrights could shape half a dozen plays out of this material - while never understanding how these themes were meant to connect.

Way way back many centuries ago ... Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a musical piece for a concert at Colet Court School. It was 1968, the piece was Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and it lasted 15 minutes. Four years later, when it was performed at the Roundhouse, Joseph had grown to a full 40 minutes.

The Joseph that returns to the Apollo Hammersmith runs 120 minutes. If the original Joseph undercut the Biblical story, Steven Pimlott's production overwhelms it. What was once funny, tuneful and relaxed has become garish and bombastic. The final number, the second of two numbers listed in the programme as the encore (nothing is left to chance) is titled "Joseph Megamix". It's a vacuous high-energy reprise of everything that's gone before. The "Megamix" alone is about as long as the Colet Court original. Which goes to prove you can spend a lot of money on something and end up impoverishing it.

Joseph opens with scores of schoolkids running down the aisles and gathering on the stage round the narrator (the excellent Ria Jones). It could be an inaugural event at the Olympics. The clean-shaven, long-haired Joseph (the TV presenter Phillip Schofield) appears from behind a screen, singing amiably, thanks to a very powerful microphone. Joseph may interpret dreams, but his main job is to embody one. One of 12 brothers, he was born into a chorus line, but when opportunity knocked, he became a star. Done on this blockbuster scale, the triumphalist tone becomes vaguely fascistic. The thumping blandness deprives each incident of its resonance: the seduction by Potiphar's wife, the spell in prison, the seven years of famine, the threat to kill Benjamin - any hint of darkness turns into something camp and flip. It's lucky for Sir Andrew and Sir Tim that they didn't choose a story from the Koran.

On the fringe, there's a taut, imaginative adaptation by Anthony Psaila of Rebecca West's story The Return of the Soldier. The heart of the production lies in the reactions of the women when Chris (Ian Barnes) returns from the front with shellshock. The finely pitched performances from a wife (Eva Marie Bryer), a cousin (Nicola Winterson) and the first love (Penelope McGhie) are very moving. The director is Andrea Brooks.

'Present Laughter': Aldwych, WC2 (0171 379 3367); 'The Ends of the Earth': Cottesloe, SE1 (0171 928 2252); 'Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat': Hammersmith Apollo, W6 (0171 416 6022); 'The Return of the Soldier': White Bear, SW19 (0171 793 9193) to 17 Mar.

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