Shaw can still fill the House

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Indy Lifestyle Online
After a typically quiet August, London theatre came back to life this week with superb revivals of two plays which, though written 40 years apart, share common ground. In Shaw's fantastical Heartbreak House and Arnold Wesker's powerfully naturalistic Chips With Everything, class and the ghosts of Shakespearean heroes loom large.

Shaw wanted the frantically amoral behaviour of the temptresses, businessmen and idlers gathered together in Captain Shotover's Sussex home during the First World War to show up the futility of the moneyed classes who he believed were piloting the good ship England to disaster.

It is easy to see why David Hare, the Nineties' leading exponent of the state-of-the-nation play, wanted to direct a work which he regards as the progenitor of the genre. His Almeida production (sponsored by AT&T) shows a play which has evolved from a the topical polemic 1921 into a period piece. Shaw's power to agitate has faded, his power to amuse has not.

Chekhov gave Shaw the model for a country house filled with chatter, Shakespeare's Lear was the template for Shotover, the 88-year-old mariner (Richard Griffiths) who dreams of inventing an all-powerful psychic ray. In place of Goneril and Regan, the captain has Hesione (Penelope Wilton) and Ariadne (Patricia Hodge). Cordelia is Ellie Dunn (Emma Fielding), the young daughter of a ruined businessman, who is unhappily engaged to Boss Mangan (John Bowe). Hesione's debonair husband, Hector Hushabye (Peter McEnery), and the rakish Randall Utterword (Simon Dutton) complete the cast.

Effortless aphorisms and put-downs flow freely, punctuated by ever more outrageous revelations. Hare has his cast milk the comedy with unashamed vigour - McEnery, Bowe and Dutton hurling themselves into their parts like escapees from a silent movie.

Act One is dominated, but by no means stolen, by Wilton's deliciously haughty Hesione. When she fires off another withering insult or tries gently to seduce Ellie's father, her eyes glint as brightly as the chunky rings adorning seven of her fingers.

Fielding's palely beautiful Ellie begins as a wide-eyed ingenue and ends as a confident adult, her blonde hair symbolically released from its bun. Despite the white hair and beard, you can't help feeling that Griffiths's rotund, gnomic Shotover is hardly a day over 60 - but then making allowances is part of the fun. Leave your disbelief at home and, like the characters, you are in for an enchanted evening.

With his cut-glass accent and high cheekbones, Rupert Penry-Jones, the gifted young actor playing Pip Thompson, the central character in Chips With Everything, could be the Hushabyes' grandson.

The trials which Pip and his fellow RAF conscripts endure in Howard Davies' tense and exhilarating production at the Lyttelton (the play's first major revival since its Royal Court premiere in 1962) should make every man under 55 give loud thanks that he escaped National Service.

Drawing closely on his own experiences of basic training, Wesker concocts a richly theatrical recipe similar to Neil Simon's in Biloxi Blues: place a group of young men in a claustrophobic hut, beat them with exhausting physical training, sprinkle with class prejudice and bring slowly to the boil.

Pip is a Prince Hal amongst common men, a general's son trying to escape his predestined path to the officers' mess by "slumming it" with the "yobs" whose dietary preferences give the play its title, men like Eddie Marsan's achingly inarticulate Chas.

While their abrupt but humane drill instructor, Corporal Hill (James Hazeldine), knocks them into shape - cue hilarious, stumbling attempts at marching and rifle drill - the civilian-hating Wing Commander (Julian Glover, exuding icy assurance) and two other officers try to manipulate Pip back into his "true" class. England may be at peace in Chips, but the battle for Pip's soul is ferocious.

Pip's undeniable leadership qualities emerge when he coordinates the shivering squad in a raid on the base's coke yard which, as the stage directions stipulate, is "silent, precise, breathtaking, and very funny". His eventual choice, the agony of which is etched on Penry-Jones' face, is every bit as affecting, and far more sinister, than Hal's betrayal of Falstaff and co.

The thrilling pace maintained by Davies owes a great deal to Rob Howell's stunning design. He squares off the Lyttelton stage with two forbidding wire enclosures. When the scene changes, the cast unhook sections of the inner fence, swinging them backwards or forwards to form the walls of hut, NAAFI or lecture room. Not only does this enable the action to keep moving at a tremendous lick, it also provides a constant visual reminder that the men are being caged. That image becomes explicit near the end, when the hapless Smiler (Julian Kerridge, resembling a younger, less robust Stan Laurel), who has been brutalised for his incompetence on the parade ground, leaps onto the wire like a hysterical chimp.

Kerridge, like every other member of the squad, is excellent. You never forget that these are child-men, only two of them into their 20th year. If there were an award - or perhaps in this case a medal - for the best ensemble acting of 1997, Davies's cast would be hot favourites.

Just down the road from the Lyttleton, Tim Supple's modern-dress RSC Comedy of Errors moves into the Young Vic after a year of extensive touring.

Before a word is spoken, three musicians, who sit in front of the thrust stage throughout the performance, launch into a thrilling Arabic overture which transports us to Ephesus (now Efes, in Turkey). But, as the cases of mistaken identity involving the two sets of long-lost identical twins (the merchant Antipholuses and their servant Dromios) become ever more chaotic, Supple has this excellent trio deliver far too much accompaniment. Though beautifully played, the music distracts from the dialogue to such an extent that you wish you had twin sets of eyes and ears, one for the play and one for the concert.

There is energy aplenty in the knockabout scenes, with the shaven-headed Dromios sworn at and beaten for "disobeying" orders given to their twin. Yet as soon as the verse takes a more serious turn, Supple disappointingly allows the action to slow almost to a halt.

That the evening never really catches light is as much Shakespeare's fault as Supple's. This is the earliest and, arguably, weakest of the comedies, short on memorable verse and over-reliant on devices which resurface elsewhere to far greater effect (Twelfth Night's twin-induced muddle, involving brother and sister rather than two brothers, has a far greater sexual charge).

If Dromios of Ephesus's plea not to be spurned "like a football" excuses a spot of soccer terminology, then Robert Bowman, a master of the slow- burning double take as Antipholus of Syracuse, is my man of the match, but the production falls short of the premier league.

'Heartbreak House': Almeida, N1 (0171 359 4404), to 11 Oct. 'Chips With Everything': Lyttelton, SE1 (0171 928 2252), in rep. 'The Comedy of Errors': Young Vic, SE1 (0171 928 6363), to 11 Oct.

Robert Butler is back next week.