Those critics. What do they know?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
There's a big difference between consumption and production, and eating a lot of cake doesn't make you Mr Kipling. Undaunted, BAC is hosting The Critics - Up for Review, a festival of work directed by four theatre journalists - Michael Billington (Guardian), Nicholas De Jongh (Evening Standard), Jeremy Kingston (Times) and James Christopher (freelance). Like Martin Bell's entry into politics, the season has proved to be an effective publicity stunt. For similar reasons, it is an uncomfortable subject for journalistic comment.

The problem isn't in the aspirations of these men to exchange observation for involvement, but in the reasons for which the punters are being asked to see the results. The poster parades the newspaper men like criminals on whom we're invited to pass judgement: it exhorts us to give them a taste of their own medicine, to see how they like it when their weeks of graft get savaged in a few lines dashed off in the office. But how does an audience - never mind another critic - watch a series of plays marketed as a quirky controlled experiment?

Michael Billington's contribution is a double bill of Strindberg's The Stronger and Pinter's The Lover. As a critic, he's probably our most insightful judge of both these playwrights. As a director, he's played safe with a pair of student standbys requiring tiny casts and lots of sitting down. The Stronger is a Nietszchean battle between two ladies who lunch, pitching betrayed wife Madame X (Sian Thomas) against her husband's mistress, Madame Y (Kim Thomson), who remains throughout as silent as, well, a theatre critic. Its companion piece is another bloody-nosed marital satire, in which Sarah (Thomas again) and Richard (John Michie) wrangle viciously over each other's adulteries. Billington's pairing of these plays is a rare, persuasive demonstration of the resonances between Strindberg and Pinter. Both writers share a focus on domestic brutality, on the perverse and the absurd - Mme X plays with a pair of slippers embroidered with ridiculous tulips at the request of her husband's lover, and Pinter uses a phallic bongos as a magnificently obvious symbol of sexual infidelity. They also share an interest in red-clawed misogyny, and when Pinter's cuckolded Richard tortures Sarah with fantasies about "voluminous great uddered feminine bullocks", you can almost hear August ranting about "half-formed youths with udders who haemorrhage 13 times a year", as he so delightfully puts it in Creditors.

Billington stages his texts with clarity, but his attention to detail comes at the expense of the bigger theatrical picture. He doesn't quite find Strindberg's lunatic energy, and he doesn't quite release the gags from Pinter's nasty farce. Despite two blistering performances from Sian Thomas, I sensed a scholarly flatness about both productions.

Nicholas De Jongh has also found a fine cast for his production of Jean Anouilh's Traveller without Luggage: Valentine Pelka makes smart work of Gaston, an amnesiac WWI veteran; Rosemary Leach brings a fierce, guilty intelligence to the role of his mother Madame Renaud, and Will Keen is a magnificently neurotic valet, getting the night's biggest laugh with a line about squirrel fur. De Jongh has a better-developed visual sense than Billington - a scene in which a convoy of servants process onstage with a cargo of stuffed animals is a treat - but there are ham-fisted elements. Gaston's attacks of deja vu are underscored as though De Jongh doesn't trust his actor to convey them unaided, and Robin Don's set plays havoc with the sight-lines. What emerges is what you'd expect from theatre made by its critics: intellectually coherent work dogged by a slight lack of directorial imagination.

BAC, SW11 (0171 223 2223), to 27 April.

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