Theatre: My night with a well-made, unsurprising drama

THERE ARE, heaven knows, enough badly made plays around that it seems positively wasteful to start complaining about the well-made ones - we ought to be petting and nurturing them. But half the trouble with Kevin Elyot's The Day I Stood Still - his first play since My Night with Reg - is precisely that it is so well made, stifled by its own technical proficiency and symmetry.

To be fair to Elyot, he does do his best to disrupt your sense of order, through a jumping, irregular time-scheme. The play comes in three parts. (In the programme, Elyot refers to its three "movements", quoting Walter Pater's line that "All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music", which suggests that the play is conceived of in symphonic terms.)

The first part introduces us to Horace, a small, shy man somewhere in his thirties, and establishes that his whole life has been overshadowed by his passion for Jerry, an old schoolfriend who is now dead. The second part takes us forward 13 years or so: Jimi, Jerry's 17-year-old son (and Horace's godson), turns up unannounced at Horace's flat - he has run away from school after the failure of a love affair which threatens to overshadow his whole life. The final part flashes back to an afternoon in the Sixties, when the teenage Horace declared his love to Jerry. A tiny coda has the grown-up Horace opening the windows of his flat and breathing in fresh air - a final modulation into a major key.

There are a number of incidental pleasures. Elyot is an adroit comic technician, and he marshals the laughs impressively - punchlines are deftly set up and knocked down, and there are a couple of smartly inserted running jokes (one about a chair with a leg that falls off, the other about a deafeningly loud bell that blots out conversation in Horace's flat every hour). Ian Rickson's production at the Cottesloe is consistently well- paced and well-acted, with Adrian Scarborough outstanding as the adult Horace, all twitchy vulnerability to begin with, but gaining a veneer of self- confidence with age. He is matched impressively by Callum Dixon as the adolescent Horace, touchingly awkward and desperate with pent-up longing for the rangy, glamorous Jerry (Oliver Milburn). At one level there's little room for complaint, and if it's simply a pleasant, not-too- demanding night out at the theatre you're after, The Day I Stood Still has much to recommend it.

But if there's little room for complaint, there's even less room for surprise, or ambiguity, or wonderment. Every revelation is telegraphed, every incident has its tidy mirror-image. In the first scene, Horace is visited at his flat by a male prostitute, Terence, who keeps on insisting that he's met him before, and you just know you're going to find out where. Sure enough, in the final episode Horace's flat is invaded by a working- class youth who announces that his name is Terence - a revelation that leaves you with a sense of relief that we've finally got it over with. Horace talks of how he lost a treasured chain given him by Jerry; and only a fool would lay odds against him finding it again. Which he does. Perhaps art does aspire to the condition of music; but theatre should never feel so orchestrated.

It doesn't help that the sympathy Elyot extends to Horace and Jimi doesn't reach any of the other characters. Jimi's mother, Judy (Catherine Bennett) is a shrill sitcom harpy - in the final scene, when she's the teenage Jerry's first proper girlfriend, she's an absurdly pretentious hippy-chick who even Jerry laughs at. Terence (Jake Wood) is a caricature prole - after a brief encounter with Judy's French boyfriend, he dismisses him with the words "Fucking frogs." Still, even Terence has, we gather, been marked by passion, just like Horace and Jimi; Judy's relationships with men, we gather, are all fleeting and shallow. The casual dismissal of these other lives lightens the play in the wrong way. Smooth and weightless, it leaves little impression.

This is not something you could say of the RSC's heavy, rough-edged staging of The Mysteries. Katie Mitchell's production, using a text put together by Edward Kemp, opened in Stratford a year ago as two plays, The Creation and The Passion, which drew on a variety of medieval sources to present not an authentically medieval experience, but a modern response to them - to uncover the themes that bind together modern Christianity and the medieval version.

At the Pit, the two plays have been amalgamated into one six-hour play, and their rationale has changed drastically. While the first part remains a more or less faithful retelling of the Bible stories - the Creation, the Fall, the Flood - once the Cities of the Plain have been destroyed, things start to change. Episodes from the Old Testament start to blur into one another (for example, Moses, having laid down the Commandments, settles down to the business of anointing Saul king of Israel, which the Bible leaves to the prophet Samuel), and into the modern world. The cast discard their Forties-style austere suits and frocks for something more up-to-date; guns appear, and the slaughter and rapine that characterise so much of the Old Testament are overlaid with oblique - well, not very oblique - references to Bosnia. The Messiah arrives in a bleak landscape peopled by terrorists, secret policemen and informers, and preaches a gospel of freedom - nothing about eternal life here. The holy sepulchre is a mass grave, a heap of fly-blown corpses; and if Jesus's body is missing, nobody notices.

This is no longer a modern response to the medieval plays, but an attempt to write a modern equivalent: to tell the story of Christ in absolutely contemporary terms, swearing and all.

There are many aspects to praise. Again, the acting is uniformly excellent - though by far the most memorable part is David Ryall's avuncular God, chortling with delight at his own ingenuity as he creates the world, growing more harrowed and less hopeful with every new disappointment, as humanity pursues its career of destruction. The Flood is represented by old postcards fluttering down from the ceiling, leaving behind a sea of dead and forgotten faces (I picked one up in the interval from Margate in August 1947: "Dear Auntie, We are all having a nice time with lovely weather ...").

But the pacing is horribly uneven - there are long stretches when you really do feel you're watching eternity unroll before your eyes - and the updating clumsy. One thing I realised while watching is that effing and blinding, like telling jokes, is a gift: some people just can't do it. And while Kemp strives for directness and clarity in the theological argument, much of it dissolves in naive and cliched pieties. The play aims to discomfort you spiritually, and has a measure of success: an elderly man leaving the theatre just behind me was complaining that it had been "a travesty of everything I believe". But seeing talent and intelligence throwing itself away - that is really unsettling.

'The Day I Stood Still': Cottesloe, SE1 (0171 928 2252), to May. 'The Mysteries': The Pit, EC2 (0171 638 8891), to 4 Apr.

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