THEATRE: Day breaks into lots of little pieces

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A NEW play dealing with the sharpest issues in contemporary society is unlikely to include a house in the country, a husband in tennis shorts, a foreign maid kissing a guest, a philosophical gardener, and a terraceful of middle-class characters, drinking filter coffee and complaining about the void in the centre of their lives. There may be plenty of people who behave exactly like this, but one privilege they don't enjoy is warm scrutiny on the Royal Court's main stage. Until Timberlake Wertenbaker's Break of Day, that is.

Max Stafford-Clark's Out of Joint company have been touring an excellent Three Sisters, to which Wertenbaker has written a companion piece that takes the three women 100 years on. These three have put their careers first - which means it is no longer Moscow they yearn for, but motherhood. We open on a birthday. Tess (Catherine Russell) is a magazine editor, 40, and childless.

The talk here is glibly earnest and self-conscious. Friends tell each other biographical details that they must already know: "I didn't go to university like Tess"; "I'm Jewish ..."; "I've worked all my life to become a consultant in a big NHS hospital". They are quick to unburden themselves ("Actually, I have a confession to make ...") or to explain how they feel about each other: "I left you because you did nothing to keep me." No, I left you because you could sum up relationships in a sentence.

Some of the nudging Chekhov parallels are easier to spot than others. Here's one. Nigel Terry plays a tense, gesticulative Vershinin in Three Sisters. In Break of Day, he plays a tense, gesticulative actor, who is playing ... oh, Vershinin in a touring production of Three Sisters. In one scene, he wears the same costume.

It's a relief, when you imagine that you're in for a weekend with these characters, agonising between meals over who should leave their husband, wife, lover or job for a better, more idealistic future, to discover that Wertenbaker abandons the weekend-in-the-country genre round about Saturday lunchtime.

Instead, during the interval, two of the characters take a quite un-Chekhovian step and hop on a plane. We join up with Nina (Maria Friedman) and Hugh (Brian Protheroe) in an unidentified Eastern European country as they try to adopt a child. Meanwhile Catherine Russell and Nigel Terry take the less scenic route and try IVF. These pertinent alternating storylines dominate the second act, as Wertenbaker sketches - fairly broadly, unfortunately - the time, trouble, money and trauma involved. Take one step and if it fails, it's hard to resist the next one. "It's like living with a junkie," Terry complains bitterly to Russell, "always waiting for the next fix, of hormones, of hope."

If this sounds an interesting premise for a play, then that's all that it is. Wertenbaker's topical dialogue flags up one powerful theme after another without settling long enough for us to get a good ethical issue in our sights. The snapshots we see make up a fashionable 1990s collage. What we want is an X-ray. Still, there are good performances, especially from the languid Protheroe, and from Russell, who visibly whitens and hard- ens as her life narrows down to the question of how good her eggs are.

The Royal Court's "Classics Season" - a revival of three Court plays at the Duke of York's - is turning into a real treat. First there was Rat in the Skull, originally staged 10 years ago. The second, bolder choice has been to revive a play they did only two years ago. How quickly do we want to revisit Royal Court classics?

Fairly quickly, it seems. In Terry Johnson's sparkling intellectual farce Hysteria, Henry Goodman returns to his virtuoso performance as the elderly Freud. On the most basic level, it's extraordinary to see him fully inhabiting a character 40 years older than himself: with balding head, stiff-jointed movements and a quavery Viennese accent (which he never overdoes). When you see what energy Hysteria requires, and how Goodman has to match doddery dignity with breakneck speed, you understand it's essential to act rather than be old.

Aisling O'Sullivan is terrific as Jessica, the young woman who turns up in the night at Freud's Hampstead home, threatening to slash her wrists. Her desperate, increasingly serious challenge drives the show, warding off Freud's doctor (Fred Pearson) and the visiting Salvador Dali (Tim Potter), while Goodman struggles gloriously to retain reputation and peace of mind. In Phyllida Lloyd's dark, theatrical and very funny revival, his performance alone would keep Hysteria in the awards category.

One of the pleasures of Christmas shows is the chance to spend time with characters who hold a special place in the popular imagination. In The Wind in the Willows, for instance, which has left the National after four Christmas seasons, and moved down the road to the Old Vic, there's that engagingly tentative, spectacled figure with the plaintive Yorkshire accent. He says his name is Mole (Ian Sharrock). But we recognise him as Alan Bennett.

Kenneth Grahame set his Edwardian story along the riverside. Mark Thompson loyally recreates the hillocky bank, where rabbits jitter feverishly around, before neatly revolving into snug underground homes. But we adults aren't fooled. Watching Bennett's version, scaled down in Jeremy Sams's new production, the mental landscape is recognisably that of a single-sex Oxbridge college.

Mole comes over as a dippy Northern first-year, who gets taken up first by a bewhiskered don called Rat (Christopher Strauli), and soon after, by another eccentric don in an opulent dressing-gown, called Badger (Francis Matthews). They have to save the archetypal public- school figure of fun, Toad (Jeremy Sinden, in splendidly preposterous form). They room together, share adventures together and, when the occasion demands, put on frocks. This idyllic bachelor existence is threatened only by the nasty, nasal, Thatcherite presence of the Weasels. Animals with human traits have become humans with animal ones.

'Break of Day': Royal Court, SW1 (0171 730 1745), to 6 Jan. 'Hysteria': Duke of York's, WC2 (0171 836 5122), to 27 Jan. 'Wind in the Willows': Old Vic, SE1 (0171 928 7676), to 24 Feb; then touring.

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