Theatre: Overdressed, overdone, and over here

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Indy Lifestyle Online
After her one-woman show Tallulah!, Hollywood star Kathleen Turner crosses the road at Chichester from the studio to the main stage to join a vintage cast for Somerset Maugham's Our Betters. A play about American socialites weekending in Suffolk is an apposite choice for an American film actress spending the summer in Sussex. Maugham's sour comedy focuses on the wealthy expatriates who cross the Atlantic to nab impoverished English aristocrats. It's a simple commercial transaction: money for class.

In this almost embarrassingly frank study of snobbery, the American ingenue (Sheri Graubert) is on the verge of marrying Lord Bleane (Nicholas Caunter). Will she be saved? Our Betters isn't a patch on Maugham's best novels. In particular, one of his most compelling characters - the author himself - is unable to appear. He has to parcel out his superior insights to people for whom he feels only intermittent sympathy.

They are a glamorous but unattractive bunch: brittle, selfish and extremely well-dressed. As the Duchesse de Surennes, Rula Lenska combines hauteur ("marriage is so middle-class"), vulnerability and vengefulness. It's a bright, sharp performance that matches Maugham's high style. Barbara Jefford brings out the pained resignation of the Principessa della Cercola, though after more than 40 distinguished years in the theatre she's pushing it playing a 35-year-old. Nigel Davenport is splendidly out-of-touch as Kathleen Turner's elderly suitor and William Hootkins as the awesome American snob has a dapper portliness that might have been sketched in by Max Beerbohm. The disappointment is Kathleen Turner: as the older and more cynical sister of the ingenue she has a raunchy laugh, a sassy line in put-downs, and a lousy wig. But as in Tallulah! she's expending energy to limited effect.

Our Betters sits awkwardly on the theatre's thrust stage. Act One takes place in a Mayfair drawing room - a double room, which allows characters to remain up stage when out of the action. This isn't possible here. Designer Simon Higlett comes up with a raked circular stage within the stage. The cast also enter and exit through the auditorium. As they mount the stairs to make an entrance they could be coming up to collect their degrees. When you consider the main house repertoire at Chichester this season - Barrie, Wilde, Coward, Maugham and Pinero - you realise what they need is an Edwardian theatre with a proscenium arch and a plush red curtain.

Billy Wilder once said that you could direct a simple story in a complicated way or a complicated story in a simple way. In the Oxford Stage Company's new All's Well That Ends Well - which tours till Christmas - director Irina Brook presents a complicated story in a complicated way. The action of All's Well already takes place in Rossillion, Paris, Florence and Marseilles. To these locations, Brook adds another.

For the first 15 minutes, an African market-place fills with street traders, musicians and shoppers. A wicker trunk is unpacked and costumes passed round: a tambourine becomes the crown for the King of France. The cast sit on upturned baskets round the edge - playing drums and bells, putting on costumes and swigging water.

Unfortunately, presenting All's Well as a play-within-a-play diminishes the sense of place and class. One reason that Bertram rejects Helena (an impressive Rachel Pickup) is that she is a "poor physician's daughter." Nor does the act of storytelling itself benefit from this self-consciousness. As the cowardly Parolles says in a different context: "Simply the thing I am shall make me live."

'Our Betters': Chichester (01243 781312), to 27 Sept; 'All's Well That End's Well': Oxford Playhouse (01865 798600), to 23 Aug.

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