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Theatre Review: It's short, it's bleak, it's Samuel Beckett

An Enormous amount of care and attention goes into picking the right actor. And yet, remarkably, the choices that prevail in finding the right play for the right venue are often haphazard. In this respect, Katie Mitchell, artistic director at the Other Place in Stratford, is a rare exception. For Beckett Shorts, Mitchell has assembled two programmes of three Samuel Beckett plays. At the venue, she guides an audience of 60 through six different spaces (some with seats, some without) that constantly alter our expectation of what we are about to see. If these pieces were on a continuous loop they could be shown at the Tate: they are, in effect, installations. This is the Magical Misery Tour.

By moving Beckett Shorts out of a traditional theatre into new arrangements Mitchell makes us see them - as we might in a gallery - as a combination of word, sound, image and expression. The first programme, "Out of the Dark", begins with Footfalls, a piece that's shorter in length than this article, but which takes half an hour to perform. In a gloomy path of light, a hunched, haggard Juliet Stevenson paces up and down a wooden strip talking to her mum. In this compressed image of a mother-daughter relationship, her steps and pauses carry equal weight with the words: the minimalist approach, neatly, becomes total theatre.

Then we are ushered through a corridor of black cloth to stand facing a wall. Small doors pull back to reveal an elderly Debra Gillett on a rocking chair. In Rockaby, her mind is repeatedly assailed by her memories (from a voice-over) as her eyelids close. Finally, in Not I, we see a small strange shape - a mouth - lit with extraordinary precision (by Paule Constable), so that we cannot see any of the light's beam or any of the face. Juliet Stevenson talks (this time round) at tremendous speed. It's a powerful hallucinatory experience watching a disembodied, anguished mouth: whatever the words, we keep investing it with character. One moment it's a feverish hamburger, the next it's a grasping fist, then Kermit the frog. The weird sight overwhelms the hurtling text.

After an hour's break, the audience return, in "Over the Years", to three short plays about men. This manages to be even less consumer-friendly. In A Piece of Monologue, Nigel Cooke stands motionless in a doorway as the Speaker circles through his life. In That Time we are ushered into a circle of light that fades while we see, as if pickled in a tank, the head of Cooke with flowing white hair sprayed out. His eyes open and close, he sighs, and on the voice-over he drifts through fragments of former selves. Finally, in Embers, we are invited to sit in one of two rooms, with two tables displaying objects in wooden boxes (matches, a shoe, a Gillette tin) while in the semi-darkness we listen to actors' voices broadcast a story that takes place in the mind of a late-middle-aged man. Sounds familiar? It did by now. Throughout the two programmes, Mitchell's authoritative approach to the texts, the impressively metronomic acting and the shifting settings, make us view these Shorts as much as works of art as stage plays. But to travel to Stratford and find oneself sitting in a semi-darkened room and listening to a radio play is pushing it. Just a bit. By the end, my head ached from the uncompromising gloom - of the setting and the authorial vision. I needed a couple of aspirin. If not a whole bottle.

In Tennessee Williams's The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More, the role of the lonely ageing beauty Flora Goforth was originally played by Hermione Baddeley, then by Tallulah Bankhead and (in the film) by Elizabeth Taylor. At the Lyric Hammersmith, it is played by Rupert Everett. I couldn't see why. It's not as if Everett gets us any closer to the character. His Flora owes as much to Restoration fops as it does to Tennessee Williams. He sucks in his cheeks, purses his lips and bridles in his jaw to acquire a roll of fat under his chin. He brushes his hennaed hair up in the air and (a unusual touch, for a man playing a woman) lowers his voice. He has bangles, earrings, and eyelashes that extend beyond the dark glasses. He pouts, flounces, frets, screams and sobs; he has, then, the standard camp repertoire. That's his Flora.

Milk Train is fey enough as it is without resorting to a major injection of artifice. On the island of Capri, the sickly Everett dictates his memoirs, when he (she) is interrupted by the ominous arrival of a poet (James X Mitchell) with a reputation of turning up at people's houses shortly before they die. Everett is warned off him by the "witch of Capri", a flutteringly corpulent figure (David Foxxe) in dinner jacket and gold choker. In Philip Prowse's infuriatingly arch production, the central issue of Flora's relationship with imminent death remains undervalued. Nor is Everett worth seeing in drag. He gives a resolutely masculine impersonation - brittle, satirical, unintuitive - that doesn't penetrate beneath the mascara.

Half way through the second half of Stepping Out - the New Musical, the central character of the tap-dance teacher Mavis (Liz Robertson) confesses to her class of amateur dancers that she is pregnant. After the stale antics of these comic characters (whom we feel we have known in one guise or another for the last 32 years), author Richard Harris presents us with an issue he can't fudge. What's going to happen? Either Mavis is mistaken and she isn't pregnant, or she is pregnant and will have a miscarriage, or she is pregnant and will have an abortion, or she is pregnant and will have a baby. When the cast still have a big tap number to perform before the final curtain, which of the scenarios has Mavis got time for?

Not long after, Mavis says she is no longer pregnant. So was it a mistake? asks one of her class. Something like that, Mavis replies. So the central character probably had an abortion (or something like that) but we can't be absolutely sure. As long as the tap class don't muddle up their "shuffles" with their "buffaloes" we can move on to the phoney feelgood finale. In other words, Stepping Out - the New Musical, with its book by Harris, music by Denis King and lyrics by Mary Stewart-David, is a piece of tosh. Or something like that.

The beamingly good-natured Liz Robertson never looks at ease in the role Liza Minnelli played on film: and she isn't helped by director Julia McKenzie's convention of getting the cast to talk to each other, with the fourth wall as rehearsal mirror. It makes them look cross-eyed, neither connecting with each other, nor with the audience. Harris's jokes grind on with mechanical determination ("it may be February out there but its always August under your armpits"). Similarly, the patterned structure - as one character after another bustles in with comic business - is as dated as Steaming. As this motley group prepare their number for the charity concert - and I've never seen a tap show with so little tap to thrill to - you realise that Stepping Out has been completely outclassed by the story of another bunch of unlikely people determined to put on a show. That's The Full Monty. The stage version can't be far away.

'Beckett Shorts': Stratford Other Place (01789 295623), to 13 Nov. 'The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More': Lyric, W6 (0181 741 2311), to 29 Nov. 'Stepping Out - the New Musical': Albery, WC2 (0171 369 1730), to 3 Jan.