Theatre: A fine solution to Shaw's Dilemma

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HIS TARTNESS has lost none of its topicality. In Peter Hall's current production of Major Barbara, Peter Bowles, as the arms manufacturer Undershaft, tells us with chilling force: "I am the government." In The Doctor's Dilemma, which opened at the Almeida last week, Tony Britton, as the distinguished physician Bloomfield Bonington, tells us with an affable weariness that the pharmaceutical industry is a "huge commercial system of quackery and poison". It seems the playwright with the sharpest take on contemporary life is George Bernard Shaw.

Doctors kill people. The public rush after a new wonder cure. This is 1906, this is 1998. "All professions," Shaw says here, "are a conspiracy against the laity." It's not just the medics who get a lashing. Journalism is damned as an "illiterate" trade that requires "no qualifications and no public register". And critics only show up when there's a free drink.

Shaw's exuberant scorn demands full-blooded, self-confident performances. Fortunatel,y there's nothing half-hearted about Michael Grandage's delightful production. Not a syllable is wasted. Ian McDiarmid is splendid, heading an energetic cast as the newly knighted Sir Colenso Ridgeon. His beaky face snaps out instructions to his housekeeper and assistant with a preoccupied assertiveness. It creases with trepidation when faced with the young Mrs Dubedat, played with urgent breathlessness by the excellent Victoria Hamilton.

The dilemma that faces McDiarmid looks simple. Resources are limited. So he has to choose between saving the life of brilliant and amoral young artist or that of a dull, worthy general practictioner. One dilemma leads to another. If he lets the artist die, he may have a chance of marrying the artist's widow. The best way to kill the artist - a lovely Shavian touch - is to allow him to be treated by one of his distinguished colleagues.

As Blenkinsop, the tubercular GP, Robert Demeger's drooping shoulders, drooping cheeks and drooping moustache make a wonderful contrast to the spruce prosperity - the immaculate cufflinks, button-holes, watch-chains and fancy waistcoats - of the men in private practice. They dispute the roles of phagocytes, toxins, microbes and corpuscles with clubbable ease. They find the presence of Demeger in McDiarmid's consulting room as unwelcome as any rogue germ.

The other doctors are a vintage bunch. Martin Jarvis plays the enthusiatic surgeon Cutler Walpole - eager to whip out anyone's nuciform sac - with tremendous relish, his hefty fees buttressing his self-belief. As the snowy-haired, pink-faced Bonington, Tony Britton nicely extends the Harley Street charm we know from Don't Wait Up. While, as Sir Patrick, Bernard Horsfall is a red-faced, loftily dismissive elder figure who has seen it all before. These medics are as sceptical about each other's ideas as they are gullible about their own. Only James Callis, as the young artist, is miscast. He has definite qualities - he's tremulous, emotional and flirtatious. But this role - which was first played by Granville Barker - requires a tougher intellect.

If The Doctor's Dilemma is an old play that remains topical, then Doug Lucie's Love You, Too, which opened last week at the Bush, is a new play that will date very fast. Lucie has set himself two aims. The first is to write about the 1990s, or the mid-90s, from Election Night in 1992 to Election Night in 1997. When it comes to evoking this period Lucie opts for switching on the TV in the corner of the living room, from which we catch glimpses of John Major, Neil Kinnock, Terry Venables and England playing Germany. This is a mistake: like children and animals, actors ought never to work with televisions. Otherwise, we know it's 1992 from references to the Sheffield rally and "the stupid Welsh pillock". We know we've moved on a couple of years when they argue about the first Oasis CD. "It's like the new Beatles." "It's the Beatles if Ringo had been in charge." We know it's 1997 when one of the two yuppie girls thinks she's going to vote Labour.

Lucie's second aim is to write about the cycle of modern relationships. Here the news is bad. When Mick (Sam Graham) and Shelley (Susannah Doyle) first get together, round about the time of the Sheffield rally, there's lots of sex. Mick tells a mate, with characteristic felicity, "This is shag city." By the time the Oasis CD is out, there's no sex at all. There's a baby instead. The handcuffs, maple syrup and courgettes - Mick and Shelley were a fun-loving couple - have given way to a carry-cot and a bottle of Calpol.

In Love You, Too taste, props, and brands define character or lack of it. Jim (Reece Dinsdale) owns a BMW, likes Simply Red and UB40, and recommends getting a mortgage. Clearly uncool. Mike dislikes CDs because you can't roll a joint on one. He likes Ray Charles, plays a classic, customised Sixties Gibson Les Paul and knew about Chumbawumba when they were a "crap anarchist band, up North". Clearly cool.

Meeting these characters is like reading a questionnaire that's already been filled in on their behalf. When Mick makes a Bloody Mary you can be sure - not least because this is one of those plays where people talk about the very thing that they're doing - that a discussion will follow about whether or not to add sherry and raw egg. Lurking beneath these glossy superficialities are some brittle and immature characters. When we hit the three grimmest lines in contemporary drama - "Can we talk?" "What about?" "Us." - we can console ourselves that it shouldn't take long to get to the bottom of that particular subject.

Lucie takes shallow characters and reveals that they are, well, short on depth. His satire isn't ruthless enough to reveal his own point of view. He tries to connect four private lives with political events on the telly. But that's what they remain: just events on the telly. Blair winning, Major losing: it's not the collapse of the Berlin Wall. With all these smart references zinging around you come away with the impression that Lucie himself is just a bit of dude.

At the Young Vic, artistic director Tim Supple has created his own repertory company to present one Shakespeare and one adaptation of William Faulkner (which opens next week). After his beautifully measured Comedy of Errors at Stratford two years ago, Supple's production of Twelfth Night is a big disappointment. Robert Bowman is excellent as Malvolio, looking like a Whitehall smoothie as he fingers his prayer book and fantasises about sleeping with his boss. Elsewhere, some of the central roles are underpowered. Too often the verse is mumbled and insistent; exotic musical accompaniment muffles key passages. One musician even taps rows of wine glasses half-filled with water. By the end I was dying for a member of the bar staff to come and clear them away. Shakespeare is one writer who can provide his own soundtrack.

'The Doctor's Dilemma': Almeida, N1 (0171 359 4404), to 27 Jun. 'Twelfth Night': Young Vic, SE1 (0171 928 6363), in rep to 25 Jul. 'Love You, Too': Bush, W12 (0181 743 3388), to 20 Jun.