THE CRITICS
THE world of Desire Under the Elms turns characters as hard and bitter as a hickory tree. The touring company Shared Experience take Eugene O'Neill's 1924 play and add to this flavour a distinctive theatrical one of their own. At first, this is pretty irritating. The Cabot brothers play the opening scene - where one buys the other two out of their stake in the farm - with the kind of table-thumping heat you'd expect at the play's climax. Only when the new wife arrives, and threatens to dispossess the remaining son, do the events catch up with the performances. Then Polly Teale's flamboyant production turns out, also, to be a powerful, passionate one.

O'Neill had the sense to take an old story, that of Phaedra, Theseus's second wife, who fell in love with her husband's son, and then rewrite it completely. Here she jumps a couple of millennia and turns up as a young wife in New England. Strongly characterised by this tough, energetic cast, it makes for a fierce triangle. As the elderly husband, Ephraim, Robin Thomson has a narrow, meanly creased face that looks as if it comes from a life of hard farming. He wags a long authoritarian finger in his son's face and opts for a better night's sleep with the cows in the barn. His wife, for one, isn't complaining. Abbie (Gabrielle Reidy) arrives as a brazenly exploitative figure, who now has a place of her own. She knows she will sleep with the deeply suspicious son, Eben (Jonathan Cullen), who twists and turns in fear. When she does, the change is thrilling.

The playing is pitched so high that Teale can isolate, with effective expressionist touches, the key moments. Abbie closes one scene by rapturously pouring water out of the teapot and into the sink. When the father sees the dead baby, he crumples in a sharp light, as if he has had a heart attack. In the play's most memorable image, Abbie and Eben come tantalisingly close to one another as he, downstairs, pulls himself up to the ceiling, while she, upstairs, sits immediately above, unrolling her stockings and listening to her husband droning on about loneliness. The sexual tension is explosive, and disastrous. The successful union of the evening turns out to be that between Eugene O'Neill and Shared Experience.

In Southampton, Patrick Sandford directs a thoughtful, if slightly contrived, All's Well That Ends Well that contains one very good performance. Alexandra Mathie was the original Daisy in Daisy Pulls It Off. Here she plays Helena, the physician's daughter, who is determined to marry her "bright, particular star", the Count of Rossillion. Mathie has a puckish face, bright blue eyes and a brisk ease with the verse. She brings a welcome sense of embarrassment to her own obsession with the young count. (Seeing him, the embarrassment is easier to understand than the obsession.) With this persuasive actress, it's no surprise that Helena pulls it off.

Patrick Sandford updates All's Well to the 1950s. This does not end up quite so well. Some characters survive the 350-year transplant. The cowardly Parolles (Granville Saxton) takes on the gruff demeanour of a sergeant- major: moustache, twitchy shoulders and lofty growl. The courtier Lord Lafew (Roy Boutcher) has the tentative air of a Buckingham Palace aide. He sports an expensive pinstripe suit and speaks in an anxious fluting voice. You half expect him to measure someone's inside leg.

But modern clothes bring modern manners and the cast give themselves ample room between the lines for characterisation. You need this in a 1950s play since it's a more prosaic period. But with Shakespeare the action is in the lines, not in between them. When you look and behave as if you are in a Kenneth More film, it sounds odd when you unburden yourself in iambic pentameters.

O'Neill understood that different periods have different plots. It's fortunate, when you consider the number of letters sent in All's Well, that no one thinks of using the phone. This plot hinges on the old folk- tale device of one woman (Helena) winning her husband by taking the place of another woman in the bedroom. Moving it into the age of the bedside lamp doesn't make it any more accessible. Only more implausible.

Judy Upton sets her new play, Bruises, which won last year's Verity Bargate Award, in and around a B&B in Worthing. Hayden Griffin divides the cramped space of the Royal Court Upstairs into a walkway, with a backdrop of deckchairs, an iron bed on a planked floor, a kitchen and beach hut. Into this briny, windswept world steps Kate (Stephanie Buttle), a slim, ingenuous student, who quickly gets involved with Jay (the excellent Billy Carter, making his stage debut). His dad, Dave (Ian Redford), runs the B&B. Bruises turns out to be a variation on the Philip Larkin theme: man hands on misery to man who then dishes it out to his girlfriend. Dave beats Jay and Jay beats Kate. Most people have an inner voice, Jay explains to the bruised Kate, telling them when to stop. "When I get angry I don't have that little voice there." As self-analysis goes, it's only a beginning.

Bruises starts with tiny details and builds into stark scenes of physical violence. This is where the style of the production falters. Domestic chores are authentically realised, but when someone hits someone else, they slap their own hand. Why be so careful, you think, over the buttering and slicing of the toast, the pouring of hot tea, the washing of glasses and the spreading of glace cherries over the gateau, when the really big moments so obviously need to be faked? If violence is the subject, an early concern must be how to dramatise it. In a small space, the naturalistic approach doesn't shock us as it should.

But then Bruises doesn't feel as if it has been conceived specifically as a piece of theatre. Nearly every scene would work just as well on television. This isn't to say that Upton hasn't succeeded in accurately depicting an appalling situation. With a good cast, it's still a disturbing story. The title is apt. Bruises hits you hard, but it's not incisive.

In The Modern Husband, a new play by Paul Godfrey, after an old play by Henry Fielding, there is a performance of lizard-like cunning from Gerrard McArthur as Lord Richly and one of delicious propriety from Jessica Lloyd as the young and unsullied Mrs Bellamant. She is a talent to watch.

'Desire Under The Elms': Tricycle, NW6 (0171 328 1000), to 16 Dec. 'All's Well That Ends Well': Southampton Nuffield (01703 671771), to 2 Dec. 'Bruises': Royal Court Upstairs, SW1 (0171 730 1745), to 9 Dec. 'The Modern Husband': Lyric Hammersmith, W6 (0181 741 2311), to 2 Dec.

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