If you go down to the woods today

THEATRE
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT'S AN ODD CHOICE for the National to revive Dennis Potter's Bafta award-winning TV drama, Blue Remembered Hills (1979). Potter's daring device was to have adults playing seven-year-old children. This shocks us less in a predominantly non-naturalistic medium than it does in a predomin- antly naturalistic one. In theatre, people dress up as other people the whole time.

Potter's atmospheric TV play - which he adapted himself for the stage - takes place in the summer holidays (in 1943) in the West Country. Richard Hudson's design looks like something you might pick up at the Early Learning Centre (suitable ages 2 to 5). There are toy sheep grazing on a sandy bank, a cow, goose and goslings, and a church tower in the distance. You feel like applauding when it appears - it looks terrific - then wishing it would go away. Similarly, Howard Harrison's lighting design changes so often that either extraordinary weather conditions pertain in the West or we're speeding through the entire summer. Atmosphere goes, as does the fluid sense of unity: Patrick Marber's synthetic production stacks one unreal world on top of another.

Potter's well-observed study of a group of cruel, competitive, fantasising children looks here as if it might have emerged out of a series of improvisations. It has that shapelessness. There's nothing to replace the eloquence of the close-up or to hold the focus. Speeches are minimal and the cumulative structure - as we cut between barn, woods and field - lacks energy. Watching the kids' games across the wide deep spaces of the Lyttelton, I felt more a viewer than a member of an audience. This time, it was Potter through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.

The cast could do a good remake of the film. (They have enough TV experience.) The exceptional Geraldine Somerville plays the gawkily aggressive Angela (with a blue ribbon in her frizzy hair), slapping her baby doll early on, slapping the boys later on, with feminine precision. As Willie, Steve Coogan careers round in knee-length shorts, shirt tail hanging out, imitating Spitfires. His familiar toothy grin and boyish snarl come in handy for a seven-year-old. Robert Glenister is moving as the dark centre of the play: the teased, isolated "Donald Duck", whose father is missing in action, and whose separateness leads to the tragic incident.

In this stilted atmosphere we admire the skilful "child behaviour" (movement: Jane Gibson) and thick rural accents (dialect: Joan Washington), and smile at the petulant squabbles. Then tragedy strikes. When it does, the play ends, just when it's getting interesting. This is a slight, derivative and over-conceived 90 minutes. TV may have been lucky to have found Potter, judging by this, Potter was lucky to have found TV.

Not since a hotel slid off the cliff three years ago has there been such a big event in Scarborough: Alan Ayckbourn has moved out of his converted theatre in a former grammar school into his converted theatre in a smartly refurbished Odeon. He opens the new venue with a rewrite of his By Jeeves musical, co-written with Andrew Lloyd Webber, which famously flopped in 1975.

The premise, which we never believe in, is that Bertie Wooster (Steven Pacey) is about to give a banjo concert to a church-hall audience (us), but his banjo has gone missing. Jeeves (Malcolm Sinclair) has sent out for a new one. It will take two hours and in the meantime - thanks to clever stage management by Jeeves - Wooster will entertain us with an account of his adventures (usual stuff: mistaken identities, visit to Totleigh Towers, declarations of love, Jeeves saving the day). It's a show within a show (a show without a show).

Jeeves is a natural stage manager, and Malcolm Sinclair glides round with a glacial fishlike air, his pencil-thin mouth keeping his feelings superbly inscrutable. Wooster is a less plausible front man. Pacey is attractively energetic, but more effortfully upper-class than effortlessly.

By Jeeves is a cocktail that mixes too many flavours: PG Wodehouse away from the printed page; Alan Ayckbourn in his children's storytelling vein; and Andrew Lloyd Webber in notably restrained form. This is a play with songs rather than a full-blown musical. The play itself appears to have been scripted by Ayckbourn the director not Ayckbourn the writer. Gag after gag centres on Jeeves's resourcefulness in overcoming a situation we never believed in anyway. It's self-consciously jolly. As Pacey complains: "A chap can't be expected to do his own sound effects while carrying the burden of the narrative."

The burden is not that heavy, which is why Lloyd Webber's songs never take off. Ayckbourn uses Lloyd Webber as the straight man, giving us us the romantic, slushy stuff which Ayckbourn then undercuts.The songs veer from one period to another and sound like skilful arrangements of ones you may already have heard. The show sounds quite like a reprise. The best number, "Half a Moment", touchingly sung by Cathy Sara, lingers in the memory. Maybe because it reminded me of "Memory". By Jeeves is relentlessly upbeat, but there's a condescending, end-of-term cheeriness to it all which never answers the basic challenge of the original flop. Wodehouse described his stories as "musical comedy without music". Why add what he didn't need?

Tolstoy looks a ripe subject for a bio-drama. His life embodied fundamental conflicts. He had a hell of a marriage. Both sides wrote everything down, but the sheer abundance of material overwhelms its dramatic potential. James Goldman's po-faced drama treats the last months, in 1910, of Tolstoy's life. Considering the amount of information that Tolstoy and his wife exchange through their diaries, it's amazing what banal details, in Goldman's clumsy hands, they still find necessary to share, face to face: "I was 30 when I met you ..."

F Murray Abraham (who recently played Lear in New York) here extends his range in dotty bearded old men as he potters distractedly round Tanya McCallin's creaky, raked stage in his peasant outfit. His pallid, histrionic wife (Gemma Jones) quivers with betrayal when the arch-Tolstoyan Chertkov (Matthew Marsh), a spruce prototype of the modern career academic, ousts her from Leo's life.

Jack Hofsiss's somnolent production over-punctuates the melodramatic action with moody music (Ilona Sekacz) and lighting (Ian Somerville). Some outstandingly low moments include Tolstoy arguing with his servant about who is to empty his chamber pot, the arrival of a feebly realised train at Astapovo and, best of all, the appearance of a gypsy girl (Sioned Jones) who visits the dreaming Tolstoy on his deathbed, swirling a red scarf and stomping the floor to the sound of a balalaika. Shortly after, Tolstoy coughs blood into his hanky. I'm afraid I inwardly cheered his imminent demise.

Theatre details: see Going Out, page 14.

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