Theatre: How not to succeed at being a failure

Reviewing theatre in London this week has been a bit like riding on a tour bus - all monuments and landmarks. After a while you start feeling a guilty urge to stop off at a shopping mall or a McDonald's so you can give your mind a rest.

Still, to switch metaphors, rubbing all these classics together does strike a few sparks. It's especially instructive seeing Death of a Salesman and The Entertainer in close proximity, and realising how much the worlds of Arthur Miller and John Osborne overlap: both plays take domestic breakdown as a pattern for national decline; and each revolves around a man on the run, an inadequate father, unfaithful husband and professional failure. The differences between the two characters could be taken as representing the essential differences between Britain - or perhaps better to say England - and America: both men are thoroughly aware of their failure, but where Osborne's Archie Rice fends off awareness through cynicism and indifference, Miller's Willy Loman gets by on hollow optimism.

Of the two, The Entertainer now looks the better play, or at any rate the more theatrically astute and daring. The political context - the Suez Crisis - seems patched on to the domestic situation. But the cheesy music-hall routines that punctuate the action, and the eloquence and savagery of Osborne's writing, still pack a punch.

The great fault in Stephen Rayne's production, now at Hampstead, is that it never lives up to that eloquence. The central problem is Michael Pennington's frozen Archie. Just how bad a comedian Archie ought to be is a moot point; but surely he shouldn't be as unfunny as this. Pennington de- livers the comic turns with a grimace of chronic constipation froz-en on his face, hissing the lines out through clenched teeth. You feel he's trying too hard, that the material Osborne has given him is pathetic enough already; and there's no sense that he could ever have been the bluff charmer that the script implies.

It's not a terrible performance, but it never reaches the pitch of unwanted emotion the play demands. The supporting cast are perfectly all right - Siri O'Neal as the young, determinedly idealistic Jean, Jane Wood as the put-upon Phoebe - but under Rayne's direction they never seem to be interacting, merely going through the blocking he's prescribed.

David Thacker's staging of Death of a Salesman at the National is a good deal better, but its slightly plodding sincerity leaves you wondering whether this is quite the great play you thought. You notice just how clunking some of the lines are, how Willy's contradictions are shoved in your face (he tells his wife that their son Biff is a lazy bum, only to change his mind three lines later and announce that "There's one thing about Biff - he's not lazy"). You observe, too, how very sorry Miller is for his characters, how determined to offer them some sort of dignity - he lacks the sheer ruthlessness that marks Osborne out. The clunking is amplified by Fran Thompson's set, with its highly symbolic tree (big section cut out of the middle of the trunk) rising in the centre and its Chevy sinking into the ground.

As with Archie, it's a moot point how pathetic Willy Loman should seem; and again, for my money, the answer is not quite this pathetic. Alun Armstrong captures all the character's weakness, but not the charm and plausibility that - as with Archie - you need to feel he had at some point in time. As his wife, Linda, Marjorie Yates doesn't resist the temptation to play her as a long-suffering saint just looking out for her man, when she's really his accomplice in all the self-delusion that goes on.

The thing that survives, and makes the play compelling, is the uneasy sense of identification: Willy's oscillations between neurotic self-doubt and manic self-confidence are recognisable in a way that nothing in Osborne is.

The next monument on the itinerary is Happy Days, in a pro- duction by the Gate Theatre, Dublin, that's stopping over at the Almeida; and here time has done far less damage. Samuel Beckett started on Happy Days in 1956 - a year before The Entertainer was first performed, and seven years after Death of a Salesman - but it feels shatteringly different from either.

Criticising this, you feel rather like Winnie, stuck in her mound (Tim Hatley has supplied a rising slope of bare, red earth, with a sharp drop into nothingness at the back). Karel Reisz's production doesn't leave much room for manoeuvre. This is the Platonic form of Beckett, looking exactly the way you imagine it should; and you don't suppose that he'll be getting any comeback from the author's estate, the way Deborah Warner did when she dared to chop around a few lines in Footfalls a few years back.

If I have a reservation, it's that Rosaleen Linehan is too good - she modulates perfectly between anxiety and beaming, slightly qualified optimism ("This will have been another happy day"); and just once or twice you wonder whether she couldn't be surprised by an emotion. But this is the one production I've seen this week - in fact, this year - that left me wanting to go back and see it all again.

It's a long way from here to the last landmark on our list - The Weavers, at the Gate in Notting Hill. Gerhart Hauptmann's 1892 play may not be well-known in this country, but it's one of the high points of naturalism in the theatre: an almost documentary-style account of the Silesian weavers' rising of 1844. Dominic Cooke's production is an extraordinary triumph over limited space and resources, packing a cast of 25 into a high-walled pit that leaves room for about as many in the audience, staring down at the action. There's fine playing all round, and Hauptmann's agitprop sometimes nudges uncomfortably close to home - you realise that the terms in which the poor are discussed by their social superiors haven't changed much in a century and a half. But if in the end, the propaganda wins out over the drama, at least you feel you've been educated.

Theatre details: Going Out, page 14. Robert Butler returns next week.

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