Odd couples weighted by history

THEATRE
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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHEN Robert Bolt adapted Dr Zhivago for David Lean he made a list of 10 key points and wrote his screenplay round the list without consulting Pasternak any further. An adaptor of War and Peace needs to exercise similar brutality. The Penguin Classic edition runs to 1,444 pages. In Shared Experience's new four-and-a-half-hour version, we gallop through the size of an average novel every 60 minutes.

The adaptor, Helen Edmundson, takes the kind of risks that might conquer a novella without necessarily subduing a vast novel. What hampers this exceptional production, jointly directed by Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale, is that it doesn't find an alternative to the sheer scale of what Tolstoy achieved. With Shared Experience's War and Peace, we share the experience of individual moments, often superbly realised, while wishing there was as much energy between scenes as there is within them.

After 21 years in existence, Shared Experience has developed a Heineken- style facility for expressing those parts of novels most adaptations never reach. It works in many ways. We exchange the slow-burning pleasure of the authorial voice for dramatisations of characters' inner lives. When the solitary, religious Maria is praying (Helen Schlesinger, playing her with an absorbing integrity), for instance, an imaginary blind-folded figure enters and seduces her. We see props used with exemplary resourcefulness. A gilt picture-frame serves as doorway, opera box, window, mirror or the cart that leads Muscovites to their execution. We see stunning set-pieces conjured out of next-to-nothing - out hunting, actors are hounds, straining at their leashes as they corner a wolf. Simple effects, such as the red flag that the single figure of the wounded Andrei (Ronan Vibert) swirls round at the battle of Austerlitz, create commanding stage images. Mood, too, is beautifully controlled: the joy that greets the news that Andrei has a son switches, with the news his wife, Lisa (Cathryn Bradshaw), has died in childbirth, to a chilly silence.

As Pierre, a man who confesses he finds it hard to get out of bed before one, the bespectacled, bearish Richard Hope is excellent, tempering idealism with genial self- deprecation, and constantly suggesting that Pierre is intelligent enough to be aware of his own foolishness. David Fielder is richly eccentric as the irascible, tyrannical Prince Bolkonsky, while as Andrei, Ronan Vibert, moves convincingly from cruelty to his first wife to passionate love for Natasha. We can see why. As Natasha, Anne-Marie Duff inhabits each stage of her life, from the young girl with a doll, to mother of Pierre's children, with a sharp, engaging candour.

A new play, Flesh and Blood, the third of three plays that Mike Alfreds's company, Method and Madness, are presenting at the Lyric Hammersmith is itself the third in an unusual trilogy of "Devon plays" by Philip Osment. Flesh and Blood has a distinctly unmetropolitan theme. Old furniture, pot-plants, a ticking clock: Paul Dart's dark, heavy set recreates the Victorian inheritance that stifles the brothers and their sister on a Devon farm. Two photographs, both of off-stage characters, dominate the story. The first one, the opening image of the play, is an old photo of the father, placed above the piano. The second, 30 years later, is a snapshot of the illegitimate son of one of the brothers.

Mike Alfreds's cast are uni- formly good at capturing these blighted lives, caught between two generations. Martin Marquez twitches, fidgets, hitches up his trousers and swats away unwelcome suggestions. His sister, the tight-faced, joyless Rose (Geraldine Alexander) vengefully and expansively denounces Marquez when he points a shotgun in her face. His balefully hesitant brother (Simon Robson) is the sort who examines the description of each chocolate in the box before taking his pick. It's not often an actor gets the chance to correct a critic the day after a review appears. In Private Lives, when Robson went behind the sofa to play the piano I assumed in last week's review that he was miming. In fact, he wasn't. As his performance here conclusively proves, Robson is not only a good actor, but a pianist, too.

Osment has a genuine talent for the dramatic. On Christmas night in the parlour, after a game of cards and a glass of port, one brother cautiously intimates his feelings to Shirley (Abigail Thaw) only to discover that the other brother, who had gone out to make the sandwiches returns with an engagement ring which he hands over to her. Desperate hope, despair and embarrassment are convincingly rolled into one glorious moment. Warmly recommended.

Neil Simon's The Odd Couple moves into the Haymarket to fill the space left by the early departure of Mind Millie For Me. Two veteran American actors, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, play the two men whose marriages have broken up, who find themselves sharing an apartment, and who drift into another "marriage" that drives each other nuts. The dapper Randall plays Felix, the prissy, housewife-type, who wears a seat-belt at a drive- in movie; the craggier Klugman plays Oscar, the slobby sports writer who defiantly sprays air-freshener over Randall's linguine. These two could do it blindfolded. Randall and Klugman have toured the US with The Odd Couple seven times. Klugman, in fact, replaced Walter Matthau in the original 1965 Broadway production. He's been getting laughs out of threatening to throw Felix out of the apartment for 30 years.

It might have been more appropriate for them to have done Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys (1972), dealing as it does with old comedians in their 70s. As it is, their age makes a nonsense of certain plot details. These two men are chasing two English girls (Fiona Hendley and Sarah Payne) young enough to be their granddaughters. It puts a strain on the line: "You couldn't have a better-matched foursome." There's a further difficulty: Klugman has returned to the stage after a serious throat operation, which has left him with a low, raspy voice that requires a microphone.

That said, The Odd Couple possesses an indecently high number of gags, which, rooted as they are in character and logic, don't seem to date. Randall and Klugman are well supported by a familiar British cast (including Henry McGee, Rodney Bewes and Trevor Bannister) as their poker-playing friends. You are unlikely ever again to see an Odd Couple as elderly or experienced as this: each piece of business - the cloud of cigar smoke that opens the play, the cards hurled into the air, the potato chips flying round the room - looks as if it has been more thoroughly road-tested than any new car.

Theatre details: Going Out, page 14

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