Theatre: Unhappy families, in the most peculiar fashion

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THEY DON'T write plays like they used to. Two three-act dramas opened this week, both set in France. One is a premiere, the other 70 years old; one is by a prominent playwright, the other by an insurance clerk making his debut. They offer strikingly opposing views as to how to write for the stage. They could have been written by different sides of the brain.

The first takes place in a strange limbo world. The New York playwright Phyllis Nagy sets Never Land, which premieres at the Royal Court, in a farmhouse in the South of France. Her French family, the Jouberts, insist on speaking English, which they do with perfect RP accents. At 5am, Elisabeth lies naked in a tin bath, listening to Purcell and indulging in free association. Her father Henri enters in a pinstripe suit. The Jouberts are Anglophiles: Henri wants to run a bookshop in Bristol; Elisabeth wants to marry her lover at the Chelsea Registry Office. (Her lover, Michael, a black American, works as the men's-room porter at the local casino.) Then her alcoholic mother enters. "Is it too early for cocktails?" An English couple, the Caton-Smiths, will be round for breakfast. The husband owns the bookshops that Henri wants to work in.

You have to put your notebook away at this point. To relay these details suggests plot, character development, a situation with a measure of plausible atmosphere. But this is clearly not the aim. Mark Thompson's set of pink floor-tiles and yellow walls has wooden double doors that open out on rain-sodden gravel with a pink and blue sky. The vegetables on the table might be from a still-life. There's an uneasy, pictorial glow. In Steven Pimlott's artful production characters often speak their lines with a heightened poise, not naturalistically, as if picking up on what the others say, but as if the script were a score.

The lines themselves are chiselled, self-consciously poetic, and sour. Characters step out of the action to deliver soliloquies while the others freeze. Many of the remarks are shallow and callous. The Caton-Smiths are a caricature English couple. The portrait of the snobbish Mrs Caton- Smith is all toothy smiles, nervous laughs and sudden physical lurches. Its lack of sympathy is slightly snobbish itself.

Never Land progresses through a variety of genres including farce. In scene three, the parents return to the house and discover Michael in a dressing-gown. They think Michael is a burglar and he thinks they are intruders. But somehow, the farce isn't funny. This formal instability is matched by the unpredictable sexual currents. All is flux as the characters withdraw into fantasies, visions and routes of escape.

Because of this, it looks hell to act. Michelle Fairley is tauntingly preening as Elisabeth, whose lack of self-esteem invites violence. Pip Donaghy, as the frustrated-businessman father, working in a perfume factory, is the picture of bourgeois repressiveness, who spins off bizarrely into the Don't-Mention-the-War scene from Fawlty Towers. As the drink-sodden mother, Sheila Gish heads off into AbFab territory, sitting inside the cupboard and swigging the wine bottle as she struggles to cope with her husband and his fantasy of England. But I never felt these people existed strongly in relation to each other or to a world. Over three hours, Phyllis Nagy proves herself a distinct talent - but a tricky one to warm to.

From the fluid fantasies of today to the rock-solid realities of the interwar years is a trip back from Never Land to No Man's Land: in Journey's End, revived at the King's Head, we are somewhere doggedly precise. It's a dugout in the trenches near St Quentin in March 1918, a couple of days before the German army's first spring offensive. Second Lieutenant Raleigh joins the company led by his old school hero, Captain Stanhope. For a Twenties play, Journey's End has little plot. The 21-year-old Laurence Olivier, who took the role of Stanhope so he could get seen for a forthcoming production of Beau Geste, complained that "there was nothing in it but meals". But RC Sherriff's first professional play achieves its undeniable force by establishing the greatest possible displacement between what people talk about and what people do. What counts on the Western Front is whether the jam is raspberry or apricot, and whether there is pepper for the soup.

These days, the play walks its own tight-rope with its "toppings", "splendids", "jollies", "good shows" and "rathers". But under David Evans Rees's tactful direction, the company infuse the dialogue with an understated courage and resilience that defies mockery.

Kris Marshall plays Raleigh with a lovely wet-behind-the-ears innocence. Samuel West is extremely good as Stanhope, the officer who is hanging in there thanks to the whisky bottle. West can underplay smoking and reading and half listening to a conversation to the point at which he has our full attention. Miles Richardson plays Osborne, the watchful schoolmaster, with the ironic decency that amply convinces us he is sorry to leave his pipe before a dangerous raid "when it's got a nice glow on the top like that". Osborne and Raleigh have six minutes to go before the raid and have to find something totally unconnected to talk about. It's a paradigm of a certain kind of English theatre.

Some companies sound like they are the names of shows. Told by an Idiot is one. This physical-theatre company, directed by John Wright, borrows the plot of Moliere's Tartuffe - the religious imposter who moves into a household and takes it over - to create a modern-day version called Don't Laugh It's My Life. Using Moliere as the blueprint gives this imaginative adaptation a struc- ture and momentum that "devised" shows frequently lack. It mixes the freewheeling inventiveness of physical theatre with the emotional rewards of the well-told story.

In a nondescript living room with red curtains along the back and a set of encyclopaedias to one side, the Tatter family fall victim to the self- regarding pieties of Richard Katz's Guest, a long-faced hobo in torn pyjamas and goatee beard. The loopiest is Gran, who saws off the legs of the table and chair so that they can be closer to the ground ("easier to leap to heaven"). But the insanity spreads to the teenage daughter (Leah Fletcher) whose taste for Barbara Dickson singing Lloyd Webber might suggest that she didn't need a big push, and then on to the father, Barry, endearingly played by Paul Hunter with a porcine mask, bushy whiskers and tweedy waistcoat.

Wright's company are delightfully resourceful. Stephen Harper doubles as the frightening gran and the lugubrious son. But there's nothing rushed or cheap about this economy: it's witty and skilful. Don't Laugh It's My Life is full of good jokes, visual gags and clever comic business. It also turns out to be surprisingly moving. As the demurely conventional mother, the excellent Hayley Carmichael has been hilarious at suppressing her rage at the ruined furniture. As she pleads with the Guest to leave so that she can have her family back, she successfully shifts this anarchic tale on to deeper level.

'Never Land': Royal Court Upstairs, WC2 (0171 565 5000), to 7 Feb. 'Journey's End': Kings Head, N1 (0171 226 1916), to 7 Feb. 'Don't Laugh It's My Life': BAC, SW11 (0171 223 2223), to 1 Feb.