Theatre: Ben Elton finds it's hard to top Popcorn

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"YOU HAVE two minutes to pitch your new play starting NOW." "OK, it's called Blast From the Past and it's gender politics meets the military. It's a love story- cum-thriller, a cross between Brief Encounter Revisited and Wait Until Dark. There's this woman, right, and she lives in Hackney, and she works in equal opportunities, 'cos she used to be a Greenham Common hippy; but back then she had this secret affair with an ambitious US fighter pilot who disappeared, and she never saw him again. Are you with me? Good.

"So one night, well, three in the morning, actually, the phone rings and after 17 years it's him! So he comes round and they fight and talk and fight for the next hour and a half; and it's all really tense because it happens in real time. The dialogue is snappy, funny and tough, 'cos they're so committed to such different ideologies; and the air is filled with the promise of sex. And there's only two in the cast and a single set, so it's really cheap to put on. Whaddya think?"

I don't suppose for one second that Ben Elton pitched his play to Jude Kelly in anything like that fashion, but for far too much of this poorly characterised evening, it feels as if he might have done. If anyone told me that someone else had dreamt up the frankly schematic premise and that Kelly brought in Elton later to pump up the dialogue, I'd believe them. Sadly, this has virtually none of the sheer theatrical drive of the vastly superior Popcorn, which also had its premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Even the best machine-gun exchanges and rattled ripostes sound like excerpts from Elton's stand-up. And most of the targets are familiar: the absurd responses to gays and women in the military, what we expect of society's leaders, sex, you name it.

Yet, despite the grandly (over)stated themes, it needs a claustrophobically small space. Kelly's decision to stage it in the vast Quarry Theatre dissipates tension, which already has a nasty habit of slackening off whenever the two of them start up another round of argumentative recriminations. When a thriller leads you to wonder why the author doesn't just cut to the chase, you know you're in trouble. Imogen Stubbs copes valiantly with a script that demands she be immensely quick-witted under fire, but too dim to spot the final plot twist the audience clocked about half an hour earlier. She's also not helped by Kelly's physically awkward production, nor by Oliver Cotton, who looks perfectly hawkish, but fails to convince on the passion (or accent) front.

Ultimately, Elton paints himself into a corner with his painfully broad brushstrokes. Both characters are underdeveloped extremists - "we made Romeo and Juliet look like an arranged fucking marriage" - but, faced with a cast list comprising a struggling feminist and a senior military honcho, you don't need an advanced degree in cynicism to fathom where Elton's sympathies lie. Comparisons with Skylight leap to mind, but in David Hare's play the equally pre-planned positions were developed through the subtlety of his characterisation.

Joe Penhall's Royal Court debut play Some Voices also exhibited an affecting compassion for his characters. He mines a similar seam in The Bullet which takes the deeply unfashionable step of being about the middle class. When did you last see a set for a piece of new writing which housed plumes of pampas grass and a drinks trolley? That's not the only thing which gives it the aura of a Fifties drama. Its concerns may be contemporary - idealism, the sins of the father, employment and redundancy - but the domestic warfare of a family and its misfortunes is well-trodden territory.

After years as a chief sub on a newspaper, Charles (Miles Anderson) is being made redundant. His long-suffering wife (Barbara Flynn) is desperate for him to sign the deal which will enable them to pay off the mortgage but Charles is stubbornly clinging to his rights and doing what he does best, fighting. It's a tactic not lost on his two returning prodigal sons. The seemingly successful Robbie (Neil Stuke) is back from an extended computer business trip to Singapore with his new girlfriend Carla (Emily Woof) in tow. But the real surprise is the unannounced arrival of Mike (Andrew Tiernan) who walked out five years ago.

The most peculiar thing about The Bullet is that the situation has more potential than the finished play. In common with Fifties and Sixties "revelation" plays, secrets and lies are uncovered. But despite an A- list cast, director Dominic Cooke fails to energise this oddly inert piece. Tempers are ignited, truths are blurted out, lovemaking is curtailed or interrupted, but little really happens on stage. That's partly because Penhall is trying to describe the failure to communicate but more because it's all talk and no dramatic action: five characters in search of a play. The actors detail their personal dilemmas with genuine conviction but aside from Penhall's repeated "like father, like son" observations, the characters remain fatally isolated. Their conflicts never cohere, and the play fatally lacks momentum.

Cooke uses spotlights to turn the scene changes into close-ups or two- shot tableaux which only highlight the fact that it might work better on TV. There's a more theatrical feel to Been So Long, Che Walker's first full-length play, which is mostly due to its consciously ornate language. There is more range than is realised in Roxanna Silbert's rather flat production, but feisty Yvonne (Michele Austin) and smouldering Simone (Sophie Okonedo) lick everything into shape in the Camden Town bar which is their regular hang-out. Walker's mildly silly rage- and-revenge plot twitches uncertainly between comedy and tragedy but at its best, the bounce and energy of the writing is deliciously invigorating. The most heartening aspect of the whole evening is finding a young white male playwright writing his best roles for black actors, two of whom are women.

'Blast From the Past': Leeds West Yorkshire Playhouse (0113 213 7700), to 16 May. 'The Bullet': Donmar Warehouse, WC2 (0171 369 1732), to 2 May. 'Been So Long': Royal Court Upstairs, W1 (0171 565 5000), to 25 Apr.

Robert Butler returns next week.

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