Breakfast at Tiffany's, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London<br/>Prick Up Your Ears, Comedy, London<br/>Speaking in Tongues, Duke of York's, London<br/>Mother Courage and Her Children, NT Olivier, London

Anna Friel's Holly Golightly fails to charm, let down by cut-out skyscrapers and thin direction

Reviewed,Kate Bassett
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:12

Diamonds are a girl's best friend: Holly Golightly has made that her creed in Breakfast at Tiffany's. When her gold-digging liaisons aren't going well, this good-time girl finds solace in eyeing gemstones – window-shopping at the titular Manhattan jewellers.

Adapted by Samuel Adamson from Truman Capote's novella, and starring Anna Friel, this new West End production might – it must be said – have benefited from a larger injection of cash. The glittering Big Apple is reduced in Anthony Ward's design to two lumbering metal staircases, a blue-painted firmament and some cut-out skyscrapers. The Haymarket's resident director, Sean Mathias, meanwhile, struggles to turn paucity into a comic virtue. One supporting actress plays multiple party guests – switching flamboyant hats – but scant laughter is generated. Only James Dreyfus is explosively funny as Holly's growling agent.

Friel is pretty as a picture, and those who want an ogle-fest will doubtless rate Mathias for making her wander around repeatedly in suspenders and strip for a scene with a sunlamp. Well, it saves on frocks. And who could possibly object when her smitten writer-pal, Joseph Cross's bland William, takes a bath for parity (or for, erm, a non-platonic lathering from Ms Golightly)?

What's really woeful is Friel's lack of charm (which Audrey Hepburn had, of course, in the film version). This Holly is luminous, in blond wigs, yet little more than perfunctory as a personality. To its credit, though, Adamson's adaptation is less sanitised than the movie. The coquette speaks appreciatively about lesbians, and maybe her gamine cropped hair (in the second half) hints at Holly being, in part, a fictionalised Capote. You're not fed the Hollywood happy ending here either.

Yet the storylining still only skims the surface. The prised-in mafia subplot is scrappily caricatured; anti-Semitic insults are exchanged without subsequent scrutiny; and Holly's damaged psyche is never really bared. She may allude to past abuse and depressions, yet the shallows of light entertainment are preferred. In a week that saw the arrest of Roman Polanski, the guffaws in the stalls were distinctly scattered as Holly – totting up her lovers – quipped that those prior to her 13th birthday didn't count.

Playing Kenneth Halliwell, Joe Orton's dangerously disaffected lover in the biodrama Prick Up Your Ears, Matt Lucas reveals he is, at root, a sketch-show comedian whose acting doesn't stretch to the serious stage. Granted, he looks disturbingly strange: a bald pallid globule shuffling round Halliwell and Orton's spartan flat in underpants, or a frilly apron. But depicting psychotic murderousness with hammy mannerisms doesn't cut the mustard.

Chris New does all right as Orton, portraying the outré hotshot dramatist as tenderly long-suffering – underplaying his vanity. The relationship between the notorious ex-Rada students is shown as being sustained by camp routines, like a variety double act. Yet director Daniel Kramer can't stop that wearing thin, and Simon Bent's script (drawing on John Lahr's biography and Orton's diaries) disappointingly offers character development-by-numbers.

Andrew Bovell's Speaking in Tongues gets off to an excessively symmetrical start, with two couples chancing to switch partners in simultaneous one-night stands. They are seen improbably uttering almost identical lines, in synch. This tuneless quartet is like a poor man's opera, or a sex farce turned pseudo-poetic.

However, as the plot thickens – interweaving nine lives – it becomes a quietly tense thriller. Speaking in Tongues mourns marital unhappiness and circles around a woman's grim death in the woods. Having only four actors, all doubling, enhances the sense of slippery personalities (more than in Lantana, Bovell's film version), and Toby Frow is definitely a young director to watch. Even if some of the video projections (by Lorna Heavey) are B-rate, Frow's fine actors are all gripping: Kerry Fox as a nervous homebird, Lucy Cohu, Ian Hart, and John Simm as a morally shabby cop.

Finally, Deborah Warner's NT staging of Mother Courage and Her Children came a cropper during its previews, with technical chaos and Fiona Shaw frantically struggling to remember her lines after too many last-minute edits. Press night was delayed, but the ensemble has rallied impressively. Tony Kushner's translation is zesty and, though croaky-voiced, Shaw puts in a bravura performance as the indomitable hawker of wares, rolling her wagon through battlefields.

Her Mother Courage has great swagger: a timeless sparky gypsy in ragtag 17th-century skirts and modern army vests. No doubt Brecht, the theorising anti-capitalist, would think Warner's direction low on satire and Shaw's portrait of a war profiteer much too likeable, the fatal shortcomings of her maternal care coming across as understandable errors in desperate circumstances. But it makes for a far more poignant human drama than pure didacticism, and this Mother Courage properly lives up to her name.

Far more questionable are the interminable musical inserts by the pop singer and self-styled "hobo chic" poseur, Duke Special. His limp and self-conscious stage presence is worse than in your average am dram, and his songs – dreary and slushy by turns – aren't tuned into Brecht at all. Worse, his face is beamed on to huge screens as if he's the star of the show, and his name emblazoned across his band's drum kit. Why wait for TV or the commercial theatre to start planting adverts within dramas, when the NT will oblige? Mother Courage may be an anti-war play, but there were times when one longed for a stray bullet.

'Breakfast at Tiffany's'(0845 481 1870) to 9 Jan; 'Prick Up Your Ears' (0870 060 6637) to 6 Dec; 'Speaking in Tongues' (0870 060 6623) to 12 Dec; 'Mother Courage' (020-7452 3000) to 11 Oct

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