THE CRITICS : A triumph of teenage angst

THEATRE : SPRING AWAKENING/CORIOLANUS: Barbican, COMMUNICATING DOORS: Gielgud, ZENOBIA: Young Vic

WHEN it was written, over a century ago, Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening seemed scandalous, with its tale of rape, homosexuality, suicide and group masturbation among German adolescents. These days, its subject matter seems almost tame, and the message that seemed so scandalous then - about the necessity of full and frank sex education - turns up in the British Medical Journal.

But as Tim Supple's production at the Pit demonstrates, Spring Awakening can still shock, through the extraordinary swirl of emotions it evokes. In Ted Hughes's new, unobtrusively poetic translation, it emerges not as a piece of agitprop about sexual repression, but as a deeper tragedy about individual freedom.

Supple has taken the gamble of casting teenage actors in the central roles, and it pays off handsomely. If it was just a case of the dog walking on its hind legs - it's not that it does it well, but that it does it at all - you'd soon get bored. There is something of that - when Oliver Grig and Kristopher Milnes kiss, you're impressed by the nerve it must take; but more than that, you're moved by the unselfconscious tenderness they bring to the moment. There are no real weak links, but Andrew Falvey, as the precocious Mel- chior, and Barry Farrimond as his clumsy, sensitive friend Moritz, are outstand- ing. Both show the ridiculous side of adolescence - in Melchior's sweeping, rhetorical gestures as he excoriates "idiot religion", or in Moritz's romantic extolling of nature as he contemplates suicide - while bringing home its underlying wretchedness and despair.

There are times when the evening loses momentum - crucially, Melchior's rape of the sexually ignorant Wendla seems somehow muffled. They're more than made up for by the passion and wit of Supple's staging and by Tom Piper's shrewd design, a blank wooden wall which opens up to reveal the bizarre scenes going on behind. And there are a couple of coups de theatre - particularly the final scene, in which the dead Moritz returns with his head tucked underneath his arm to invite Melchior to join him underground. All in all, an astonishing production of an astonishing play.

Next to this, Alan Ayckbourn seems like pretty milk-and-water fare. But Communicating Doors, his 49th play, is a hugely likeable and involving comedy. Nobody who has seen Back to the Future (or read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) is going to be startled by the basic plot device: Poopay ("It's French for doll"), an improbably feeble dominatrix hired by the senescent Reece, walks through a door in his hotel room and finds herself transported from 2014 to the same room in 1994. Here she meets Reece's late wife, Ruella, whose murder she has just been hearing about. The same door, it emerges, will take Ruella back to 1974, where Reece is on honeymoon with his first wife - also heading for a suspicious death; and the three women join forces to try to alter the future.

The action takes a long time to get going, and Ayckbourn's own production is very rough around the edges - some fairly coarse acting, slapstick episodes not choreographed nearly slickly enough and lousy sound quality. You're prepared to overlook those for the sake of Julia McKenzie's strong and sensible Ruella, and Adie Allen's Poopay, which starts as broad caricature but gains depth. And it's hard to resist the air of optimism. Like Back to the Future, the message is that your future is what you make it; but in those films, it was a matter of material success. What Ayckbourn offers is the possibility of redemption - he gives us Faust without Mephistopheles, and shows us how love can transform a life.

It's strong women who take control of history here, while the men are all flawed and malleable. This isn't quite how things work in Nick Dear's historical epic Zenobia, directed by Mike Ockrent for the RSC. The play is based on the life of a queen of the Syrian city-state Palmyra, who rebelled against the Roman empire in the third century AD. And while it has obvious affinities with Antony and Cleopatra, there's also an important difference: sex doesn't conflict with politics, it's its whole basis.

Indeed, the action revolves around questions of gender: patriarchal Rome can't bear the idea of a woman flouting its authority. Zenobia (a hard- bitten Penny Downie) dresses and fights like a man; her son worries that he is in love with a Greek boy, who turns out to be a girl in disguise; and fluting around the action is Zenobia's devoted eunuch, Malik (a brilliantly unearthly Clive Rowe). Even the Roman emperor, Aurelian, who doesn't like to see a woman naked "unless I've got my balls between her legs", turns out to be less uncomplicatedly macho than he looks.

But that's the problem with the play: for all its butch posturing, Zenobia is really just a big piece of fluff. Dear's main technique is thwarted eloquence - he's constantly offering you a bit of poetry with one hand, and then slapping your fingers away with the other. You feel he's playing the same game with ideas, never quite getting to the point.

If the play doesn't live up to its ambitions, there are still some good jokes and thrilling moments (most of them courtesy of Jonathan Dove's magniloquent score), and you're unlikely to be bored. And it makes a teasing footnote to Coriolanus, now transferred to the Barbican from Stratford - a play in which manly Roman virtues are most completely embodied by the hero's mother.

How you feel about David Thacker's production depends largely on your reaction to Toby Stephens' drawling, petulant Coriolanus. It struck me more as an intriguing alternative than a genuinely convincing reading, at least up to the interval. I can't honestly say I enjoyed the evening enormously; still, you can admire the logic of the French Revolutionary setting and some fine acting. Don't let me put you off.

`Communicating Doors': 0171 494 5537, to Jan. `Zenobia': 0171 928 6363, in rep to 21 Sept. `Spring Awakening'/ `Coriolanus': 0171 638 8891, in rep.

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