A Life in the Theatre Apollo Shaftesbury LONDON Wild East Royal Court LONDON A Minute Too Late NT Lyttelton LONDON Whose Life is it Anyway? Comedy LONDON
`The show went well tonight," says John, in the opening scene of A Life in the Theatre. We are flies on the wall as this ambitious young actor - played by Joshua Jackson of Dawson's Creek fame - stands backstage, engaging in a goodnight conversation with Patrick Stewart's Robert. The latter, an older thesp who loves the sound of his own voice, opines: "Perhaps they saw the show tonight on another level... perhaps they saw a better show than the one we rehearsed." "Mmm," replies John. David Mamet's protagonists frequently say "Mmm". It laces their exchanges like an ambivalent refrain.

The trouble is I feel ambivalent myself regarding this short 1970's two- hander: a study of camaraderie and rivalry, youth versus age, one man's rise and another's fall. Composed of 26 vignettes, it can feel flimsy and, especially at first, the structure and laughs seem too easy. The action cuts between onstage and offstage; we see the duo in risible old- style rep roles, as Shakespearean combatants in silly tights, as a surgeon and his sidekick, etc. The conflicts and status-shifts between these personae are, rather obviously, to be compared and contrasted with John and Robert's tricky relationship.

That said, I have few cavils about Lindsay Posner's production. During the on-stage scenes, of which we have a rear view (as if we are upstage), it does seem improbable that Robert should turn away so much from his imagined audience (to face us). But, overall, press night went well for both Jackson, who is making his West End debut, and the seasoned Stewart - neither competitively outshining the other.

The send-up of B-rate theatrics becomes irresistibly droll in the pseudo- Chekhovian scene, with much precious twirling and sighing about autumn. The dressing-room exchanges are understated and sharply observed, and Stewart works in subtle hints of sexual attraction towards John as Robert slides into aged frailty and chronic despair. Stripped to the waist, his wrinkled yet muscular body is visually startling and speaks volumes. And, ultimately, the very brevity of these vignettes - like a flicker- book of the passing seasons - poignantly reflects the ephemeral nature of this life. Mmm.

Seemingly in a very different world, April De Angelis's new satirical/surreal piece, Wild East, depicts a nightmarish job interview in a corporate HQ. Yet it centres around an on-off switch that is curiously akin to Mamet's onstage-offstage games. Phyllida Lloyd's production is set in a sleek, windowless office. The geeky and sweating candidate, Tom Brooke's Frank, is farcically out of place, stumbling in with his rucksack - scoring zero in presentational skills - and answering questions with weird, rambling anecdotes about being lost in Siberian woods. His potential bosses are a frosty pair: Sylvestra Le Touzel's snappy Dr Pitt and Helen Schlesinger's falsely smiling Dr Gray. Frank is, we glean, an anthropologist and Gray thinks he might help the company sell itself to the Russian people.

She also has a remote-control, to record the interview on camera, so the whole encounter is a performance. As Frank struggles to get his act together, he exits to prepare bits of role-play and the women's professional masks slip, exposing embroiled private lives.

Unfortunately, I didn't buy any of this. The situation is neither plausible nor divertingly absurdist. Lloyd's actors manage to grip you with quick- fire comic timing and edginess; Schlesinger is always compulsive viewing, and all three make you think there must be an electrifying twist. However, like Frank's anecdotes, this is a shaggy-dog saga. De Angelis's big ideas - concerning hardened post-Thatcherite females, and capitalism versus culture - remain out of focus. A cod-mystical coda about shamanism is ineptly appended and the marketing jargon merely sounds cluttered. The whole evening is stylishly packaged and souped up with a final coup de theatre which literally raises the roof. It's amazing what you can do with a load of hot air.

Next, staged by and featuring Simon McBurney, A Minute Too Late is an intimate tragicomedy about going west in the metaphorical sense. Or rather it explores how we struggle to cope with death and its attendant ceremonies and duties. The show itself is a happy resuscitation. Co-devised in 1984, it established Complicite as a physical troupe of exhilarating brilliance, and this 21st-anniversary revival sees the actor-director once again playing the quietly bemused mourner - in anorak and specs - alongside his original co-stars, the gentle giant Jozef Houben and tiny, nutty Marcello Magni.

McBurney has created more dazzlingly sophisticated productions in recent years, yet this piece has not aged badly. There are one or two creaky mime-based moments, but the rest of the clowning is staggeringly funny, with a priceless funeral skit where Magni lasciviously ogles the Madonna and McBurney gets himself in a crazy genuflecting twist. The slips between bleak realities and fantasies - including an insane hearse-chase - are playful and unsettling and there is a powerful starkness to the rubble- strewn plinth on which everything is played out. Grounded in the actual death of McBurney's father, this work is also imbued with acute loneliness, bewilderment and grief.

Finally, it's hard to get excited about Peter Hall's revival of Whose Life is it Anyway?. This is a trundling star-vehicle for Kim Cattrall (of Sex and the City) who rolls back and forth, upstage-downstage, in a motorised bed. I know I shouldn't be flippant about Brian Clark's updated hospital drama. It tackles important issues about medical ethics and euthanasia as Cattrall's paralysed Claire fights for the legal right to die. Regrettably, however, the dialogue is often wooden. Cattrall is likeably sassy but milks her righteous speeches. There are fine supporting performances from Janet Suzman, playing the troubled judge, and Alexander Siddig as the tender registrar. Alas, some other cameos are so poor you want curl up and, at the very least, lie doggo.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

`A Life in the Theatre': Apollo Shaftesbury, London W1 (0870 890 1101), booking to 23 April; `Wild East': Royal Court, London SW1 (020 7565 5000), to 12 March; `A Minute Too Late': NT Lyttelton, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), to 26 Feb; `Whose Life is it Anyway?': Comedy, London SW1(0870 060 6637), booking to 30 April

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