Mustapha Matura's last play, The Coup, was a genial satire about a military takeover in his native Trinidad. Subscribing to the cock-up theory of history, it presented the path of political change as liberally littered with banana skins and clownish bunglers. Directed by Roland Rees at the Southwark Playhouse, his new work, A Small World, is much narrower in scale, focusing on a couple of middle-aged ex-pat Trinidadians who meet one winter's night in Brooklyn.
The Bar Tropicana in this locality, run by Pat Bowie's sexily glamorous Carol, seems an odd place for the clearly affluent and besuited Herman (Gordon Case) to have fetched up. His story is that he was doing business in the area and needs to ring for a cab to the Upper East Side.
The play is a staggered revelation of how this pair of compatriots, who initially appear to be strangers and whose destinies are so divergent, are in fact linked.
There's an artificiality and a manipulativeness in the way the truth is gradually exposed that seems to have no justification other than stretching out the material. The drama toys with the audience in the insufficiently motivated way that the characters toy with each other.
Mechanically, the piece keeps undercutting what you would suppose to be the case. One minute Carol is telling Herman that her son, who may or may not be his child too, is a success story, adopted by a white family and now a small-town doctor. The next, she is confessing that he's a hospitalised mental wreck, put there by exposure to the world of pimps and hustlers in which she was forced to work.
Despite the sassy wit and wounded humanity of Bowie's performance, the emotional switchback becomes an arid end in itself, not a genuine means of making us understand these people better.
Over at the King's Head, Dan Crawford's tatty revival of The Fantasticks does little to explain why this Jones/Schmidt musical has been running, Mousetrap-like, at the same off-Broadway theatre for the past 36 years.
A sort of Romeo and Juliet in reverse, it is the story of how a pair of farmers trick their offspring into falling in love by pretending to have a feud, and of how, when this deception is revealed, the couple have to go their separate ways and get a dose of reality before they reunite on a more solid base. The show's callow charm is not well served here by Katey Crawford Kastin who, as young Luisa, combines the least-fortunate elements of Olive Oyl and Violet Elizabeth Bott.
She is partnered by Joseph Millson, whose teeth and cheekbones are several cuts above his singing voice. What charisma there is is provided by Jonathan Morris as the anachronistic, swashbuckling narrator-cum-moral tutor El Gallo. Morris, of Bread fame, has recently performed this role for the Hollywood movie. It is to be hoped his luxuriant locks are not held back in that by such a conspicuous Kirby grip.
n 'A Small World' to 24 Aug (0171-620 3494); 'The Fantasticks' to 1 Sept (0171-226 1916)
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