THE CRITICS THEATRE Cartoon characters in search of a laugh

It looks great fun. Felicity Kendal stands centre-stage, in red corset and striped stockings, and pulls a curvy winsome smile. Her fiance, Nicholas Le Prevost, bursts out from behind a yellow door with a red nose and bushy eyebrows. His best friend, Neil Pearson, peers round a green door and focuses a large lascivious eye on Ms Kendal's derriere. Upstage, the Prince of Palestria, Peter Blythe, dances expectantly in his pink long-johns and top hat. Ooh-la-la, you think: this is the essence of French farce. This is Mind Millie For Me.

Well, that's the scene on the poster, at any rate. The artwork, instantly recognisable to anyone who knows the opening credits of Yes, Minister, is by Gerald Scarfe. The problem for this production of Georges Feydeau's Occupe-toi d'Amelie (1908) - translated by Noel Coward in 1959 as Look After Lulu, and here adapted and translated by Peter Hall and his wife, Nicki Frei - is that Scarfe, the caricaturist, is also Scarfe, the set designer, and Scarfe, the costume designer. His comic spirit infects the entire production. There are pastel-coloured sets, a bedroom furnished like a wedding-cake, foppish hairstyles, toy-town costumes, extravagant stage business and manic high-speed acting. The translation itself appears to put exclamation marks at the end of every line. Nothing is considered over-the-top. The name of the wealthy Belgian uncle, "Van Putzeboum" in another translation, graduates here to nothing less than "Van Putzeboumboum".

Hall and Scarfe have created a cartoon vision of Feydeau: a comic interpretation of a farce, and the derriere ligne, not surprisingly, is that all this excess isn't very funny.

You would have to be an extremely nice person (or a highly qualified psychoanalyst) to empathise with the predicament facing this bunch. The blustering, blimpish Etienne (Le Prevost) has to leave his prostitute fiancee - that's the effervescent Kendal, with a hairstyle that rises higher than the Prince's top hat - in the hands of the dashing Marcel (Pearson). When Le Prevost returns he learns that these two spent the night together (yes, shocking, and her a prostitute). His revenge is to trick them into marriage. What's crucial for the Belle Epoque world that Feydeau depicts is a sense of the starchy backdrop of bourgeois respectability. This contrast is never in evidence.

Hall assembles a first-rate comedy cast - Robert Lang plays Kendal's portly father, Carmen du Sautoy, the festive Countess who also jumps into Pearson's bed. Pearson himself is extremely quick and agile, and in the right farce would be a hit. But this isn't it. The reason is horribly simple. One of Feydeau's favourite actresses, Armande Cassive, whom he trained (and who played Amelie), remarked that: "Vaudeville does not require as much agitation as people think. The essential thing is to remain true and approach life as closely as possible."

The best drama this week, and one that did remain as true to life as possible, wasn't a play at all but merely a transcript. Two years ago, at the Tricycle Theatre, Nicolas Kent had the inspired idea of presenting Half the Picture: Scenes From the Scott Arms to Iraq Inquiry, adapted by Richard Norton-Taylor and John McGrath. Kent has followed up that initiative with an intensely powerful dramatisation of Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, also adapted by Norton-Taylor.

Seeing Nuremberg, after having seen Half the Picture, it's impossible not to notice certain stylistic similarities between those under cross- examination. There's the nitpicking over words; the reliance on bewildering euphemisms; and the breathtaking extent to which politicians claim not to have any idea about what goes on (not something they admit when they are in power).

Nuremberg is far more, 50 years on, than a historical exercise. The prologue describes it as "one of the few beacons to shine out of the 20th century". Three specially commissioned short plays - "Responses" - precede the Trial. Each one could be larger. Haiti, by Keith Reddin, is based on the case of the US army major who was court-martialled for releasing political prisoners from a Haitian jail. Reel, Rwanda, by Femi Osofisan, explores the confusion of a French teacher helping a female Hutu lawyer, who turns out, also, to be a war criminal. Ex-Yu, by Goran Stefanovski, centres on a young woman in the former Yugoslavia, questioning those who were present when her father committed suicide. These plays forcefully locate the principle of Nuremberg - that individuals are personally responsible for war crimes - in the present day.

Then, after an interval, we get the Trial itself. What took 10 months is narrowed down to two hours. Kent fills the courtroom with prosecutors, soldiers, stenographers, and interpreters. There's a scrupulously credible atmosphere. Court officials, for instance, quietly walk in and out during cross-examinations. The cast, thankfully, never overdo the courtroom acting. It's plausible, precise and revealing.

The war criminals are memorably sketched in: Michael Cochrane is the arrogant Hermann Goering, leaning confidentially into the microphone to make corrections. Jeremy Clyde makes Alfred Rosenberg an obsessed, ferrety figure, rattling off a list of British writers he admires. William Hoyland brings a baffled dignity to Field-Marshal Keitel, a soldier with a blind Prussian sense of duty, and - most eerie of all - Thomas Wheatley as Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, is as earnest and obliging under cross-examination as he was in every other task he undertook.

The RSC season in Stratford opens with a competent, serviceable, if rather slow production of As You Like It, by its company director Steven Pimlott. Ashley Martin-Davies's design of aluminium sheeting divides the city from the Forest of Arden, without very clear distinctions, and creates an uneasy mix of minimalist setting and richly braided Elizabethan costumes. The production has a similar indeterminate air.

This lack of a compelling raison d'etre extends to the uninspired casting: the hectic Joseph Fiennes and pining Victoria Hamilton, who play the rustics Silvius and Phebe, could just as well swap parts with the tousled Liam Cunningham and the earnest Niamh Cusack, who play Orlando and Rosalind. Or Robert Demeger, punching out words with telegraphic precision as Duke Senior, could change with John Quayle's loyal servant Adam, or John Woodvine's heavily forlorn Jaques. Worth seeing, but not worth a long journey.

Details: Going Out, page 14.

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