CLASSICS are on the move to the Caribbean. After Pecong, the Tricycle's recent version of Medea, the chilling story of Phaedra is now transported to Trinidad (Greenwich Theatre). In Stephen Landrigan's play, The Pan Beaters, Theseus is a property tycoon whose fortunes are sliding, Phaedra is his rich, white, American wife and Hypolite is the island's top pan- beater.
Theseus and Phaedra arrive in Trinidad for a holiday only to stumble on Hypolite and his band rehearsing for the annual competition. A showdown between Theseus and Hypolite reveals that they are father and son, and that something suspicious happened to Hypolite's mother; the tragedy is set in motion.
It's a bold and ingenious idea to set this dark tale not in a cold, arid context but against the exuberance of the pan-yard and its music. Through his version of the story Landrigan is able to explore racial tension, the problems of a paradise dependent on tourism, and the island's vexed relationship with America. It's easy to believe that in the frantic atmosphere, forces of passion and jealousy might erupt, and that the island's beliefs and superstitions might fuel the tragedy.
Had Landrigan, then, simply told the story of a dangerous, incestuous triangle in a powerful family, had he changed the names and cut loose, this play might have been a wholehearted success; the problems arise when you try to peg it against other versions of Phaedra's story. The dignity and status aren't there, neither Phaedra nor Hypolite seem to have any moral qualms - and when Phaedra tempts her stepson with a Harley Davidson, it just seems silly.
Aside from that rather basic nagging doubt, and the fact that a few scenes could have done with another draft - particularly those in which Phaedra entreats Hypolite to join her in America - this is a witty and spirited play full of heated confrontations and great one-liners. Performances in Felix Cross's production are strong - Don Warrington brings gravitas to Theseus, Victor Romero Evans is an intense, charismatic Hypolite, Jenny Jules smoulders as his wronged girlfriend, and Trevor Michael Georges gives a lovely, cheeky performance as the band's flirtatious Tenorman. And the pan music, beautifully played, is magnificent - filling the whole auditorium and woven into the fabric of the play.
Ambition is the watchword, too, at the Finborough Arms, where the last play in a season of writing by women is a dark, complex piece with a cast of 10 - four of them children. Here, too, a community is dragged into the sordid affairs of one family. Heather McCutchen's A Walk on Lake Erie deals with an incident in Seventies Cleveland, when nine-year-old Arthur Noski disappears. Police suspect his mother's boyfriend (frighteningly played by Brian Finnerty), but can't pin any evidence on him.
McCutchen, skimming back and forth in time, paints a disturbing picture of the effects of this crime and the way it takes a grip on the local people - the mayor, fighting for his political life, becomes hysterically obsessed with getting a result, while mothers wear themselves out with anxiety and children dig for bodies. McCutchen's text, laced with black comedy, has a cumulative, nightmarish effect (though her portrait of the police department is worryingly cliched) matched by Cathryn Horn's lurid, unsettling production. Nancy Crane is good as Arthur's good- natured but dim mother, an easy prey for unsavoury, manipulative men: you laugh, horrified, as she solemnly consumes a plate of frankfurters while relating the story of the disposal of her son's body.
In Hammersmith there is a fine revival of In Lambeth. Jack Shepherd's invigorating, intelligent play imagines a meeting between William Blake and Thomas Paine in Blake's back garden. When we meet them, the Blakes are sitting, naked, up a tree, while William chats with an angel and his long-suffering wife shivers. In strolls a mild, stuttering stranger, who turns out to be Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man and a wanted man. The Blakes, though poverty-stricken, invite their guest to supper. Soon the two outsiders, Blake and Paine, are exchanging views enthusiastically, finding common ground in their despair with contemporary society. But as the brandy takes hold, their profoundly different understandings of the revolution that is needed become apparent, and tempers flare.
It's a beautifully written play, precise, witty and touching - one of those rare plays that manages to make ideas dramatically exciting. Shepherd draws his characters with great sympathy - particularly Blake, who emerges as inspired and intensely vulnerable. Jonathan Church's production for Triptych theatre company (Lyric Studio, Hammersmith) is well- judged and sensitively acted, creating a real, quiet sense of place while catching you up in the fervour of the two thinkers and their times.
Terence Beesley as Thomas Paine, begins so shy that you share Mrs Blake's surprise at his identity, but gradually reveals the iron will and blazing certainty underneath. Tom Bowles gives a fine performance as the visionary Blake - glittering-eyed, he manages to appear profound, kind, wild and childlike - while Jules Melvin is touching as his warm, sensual wife, scolding him gently like a naughty son when he spends their entire housekeeping on brandy for their guest. An enjoyable evening that leaves you thinking how both men would despair were they to return to their country two centuries later.
'The Pan Beaters' runs to 17 July (081- 858 7755); 'A Walk on Lake Erie' runs to 3 July (071-373 3842); 'In Lambeth' runs to 26 June (081-741 8701).
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