Not quite up to scratch

THEATRE
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE PEOPLE speak, thanks to Tom Conti. He has teamed up with Bill Kenwright to produce three plays - the sort, he says, the public actually want to see - on Shaftesbury Avenue. In a further populist touch, Conti has countered the influence of critics by handing out scratch cards to the preview audiences. The audience response to Chapter Two was that they had had a very good time. So there you go. Conti was right.

It's a shame the scratch card didn't ask whether the audience would rather see Conti in a brand new play or in a 1977 comedy by Neil Simon that has already been done over here. If Conti wants to kick life into "the Avenue" what he should do is open in something original. Writers need stars as much as they need subsidised theatres. It's disappointing, then, that Conti chooses something that isn't new, isn't old and isn't vintage Neil Simon. Chapter Two is quite a funny and affecting play. Your critical response can easily be accommodated on a scratch card. After ticking the box there is little else to say ...

Those who admire the rich autobiographical elements in Simon's funny and evocative Brighton Beach trilogy will be disappointed by the paper- thin world on display here. Schneider is an author, and that looks a nice job. There's certainly no work involved. Schneider spends a lot of time thinking about himself. When he feels lousy, he swallows a few Tylenol. Solipsism is his subject. He travels to Europe, but "France hated me".

Schneider is also a New York Jew. This, again, means nothing. When he meets, dates and marries Jennie Malone (Gless) - a country girl from Cleveland, Ohio - their cultural differences are not even a topic of conversation. Being a New York Jewish writer is really a matter of hairstyle. In the poster, presumably done months before the West End opening, Conti has wavy hair, flopping over his forehead and twinkly eyes. By the time Conti gingerly enters his book-lined living room, wrapped in overcoat, scarf and self-pity, the weeks of rehearsals have paid off. His hair is a thick frizzy helmet. He also wears glasses and when he's upset he's dishmayed. Conti is consistently charming to watch: wry, languid, touchy. It's the sort of performance you could imagine him giving without really needing to go along and see him give it.

By contrast, David Hare's Skylight, which transfers from the National to the West End, is as compelling a piece of contemporary theatre as you could hope to see. Bereavement, middle-age, and the possibility of finding happiness a second time surface again as themes, but here they matter. One night Michael Gambon, a successful restaurateur, revisits Lia Williams, the young woman he was having an affair with before his wife died. Gambon is a highly energised bearish figure. Swathed in a black overcoat, he prowls round her cold north-London flat flicking his feet out and shifting between tangy confession and hefty scorn. It's a colossal performance - a major actor at full pitch. The special pleasure of the evening is that the pale, angular Williams, padding round in her thick socks and cardigan, cooking pasta that the two of them will never eat, has the contained verve and passionate insight to match.

The production's move from the Cottesloe to a proscenium stage highlights a stylistic gap. The director Richard Eyre and designer John Gunter depict the flat in painstaking detail. We hear the footsteps as people come up and down the staircase; we see the flame of the Ascot heater going on when Williams runs a bath. But Hare's dialogue is a size bigger than this. He has too much to say to let his characters um, er, stumble or hesitate.

Skylight fuses the personal with the political: the West End restaurateur is right-wing, the East Ham teacher is left-wing. When they argue - which they do a lot - it seems as if Gambon has a team of leader writers from the Telegraph and Williams a team from the Guardian. This riveting battle of values invites us constantly to see personal behaviour in terms of political outlook. But there must be a point when the fact that you are chucking exercise books round the flat or hurling cutlery to the floor - only two out of a number of electrifying moments in Eyre's production - has nothing to do with where you put your cross on the ballot paper.

In Serving It Up, the 22-year-old writer David Eldridge serves up a fascinating slice of modern urban life, with funny, authentic, uninhibited dialogue, and never tells you what to think about it. We follow the lives of two young white unemployed men in Hackney: drinking, taking drugs, chatting up birds, getting into fights, slashing someone's face. Eldridge doesn't glamourise this bleak, violent world. He shows it to us as it is and isn't shocked on our behalf. The central character, the tough, unthinking Sonny, is played with tremendous inchoate feeling by Eddie Marsan, who has the look and talent of a young Bob Hoskins. Recommended.

The song-writers George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have gathered together some of their songs from Just So, The Shakespeare Revue, etc, into the entertaining, if slightly winsome, Warts and All. The cast of five includes Aled Jones, who sings a sweetly self-mocking song about what happens when a choirboy's voice breaks. Elsewhere the show lacks edge. If you are going to do a song about "trainspotting", it would be smarter to satirise Irvine Welsh's novel than people in anoraks. What this revue shows is that although Stiles and Drewe have been promising for 10 years, it's still not clear what exactly is being promised.

'Chapter Two': Gielgud, W1 (0171 494 5065). 'Skylight': Wyndham's, WC2 (0171 369 1736). 'Serving It Up': Bush, W12 (0181 743 3388). 'Warts and All': Newbury Watermill (01635 46044).

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