The Misanthrope, Comedy, London<br/>Rope, Almeida, London<br/>The Cat in the Hat, National / Young Vic, London

Damian Lewis is a big disappointment, but Keira Knightley's not bad in a so-so modern take on Moli&egrave;re's classic

Reviewed,Kate Bassett
Sunday 20 December 2009 01:00

Damian Lewis's Alceste is brutally frank. As the infuriated protagonist of Molière's The Misanthrope, he cannot bear hypocritical fawning, and in Martin Crimp's adaptation, which updates the action to modern-day London, he is driven up the wall.

Alceste is a playwright who loathes luvvies and the glitterati. He is besotted, all the same, with Keira Knightley's Jennifer, a stellar actress surrounded by lecherous, treacherous sycophants.

Some of Crimp's self-referential gags about showbiz have the capacity to backfire, especially when Lewis turns to the audience and scorns Theatreland fare: "People will speak highly of a pile of shit, if they've dressed up and spent fifty quid to see it."

To be blunt, Thea Sharrock's production (top-price tickets £49.50) is merely so-so. I would say "comme ci, comme ça", only it's not quite "comme" anything. Too few of the characters ring true. They keep falling between four stools; Molière's era, our own time, and French and British culture.

Knightley's Jennifer entertains her admirers and gives press interviews in a hotel suite that's a mishmash of Baroque cornicing and trendy designer chairs. She lolls on the sofa, twirling her new stilettos, while Alceste harangues her about behaving like a tart.

What jars most – in this celeb-obsessed, shopaholic UK setting – is that the dialogue often sounds more like a Sorbonne seminar, in rhyming couplets: "It's hard to be enraged/if one is philosophically disengaged./ And the human animal looks far less fearsome/through the prism/of postmodernism."

Alceste's disgust at the toadying going on between the entertainment industry and the starstruck media is topical enough. And the celebrity casting of Knightley is almost poignant when she is momentarily stopped in her tracks to be bitterly warned that becoming famous means losing your integrity and personal privacy, being sucked into the publicity machine and spat out as a branded commodity.

What's more, in spite of some bitchy predictions that Knightley's West End debut would expose her as talentless, she's not bad. She invests Jennifer with some independent-minded dignity, and delivers putdowns with a comically timed smirk.

However, only Nicholas Le Prevost, as her suave agent, gets the balance between spot-on realism and satirical caricature. And Tim McMullan is certainly missing a trick not recognisably impersonating any current British theatre critic in his thigh-slapping portrayal of the reviewer and wannabe-dramatist, Covington.

Damian Lewis is, in the end, the biggest disappointment. Though supposedly infatuated, there's little sexual chemistry between him and Knightley's Jennifer. Nor is his hatred of superficial sycophants imbued with anything approaching passion. While his character is clearly supposed to darken – becoming threatening then despairing – he keeps merely skimming the surface.

The dapper murderers in Patrick Hamilton's 1920s thriller, Rope, believe they've risen above psychotic misanthropy and all moral qualms. A pair of arrogant Oxford undergrads, Brandon and Granillo have throttled a chum just for the hell of it, because they've read Nietzsche's nihilistic philosophy. Stuffing the corpse in an antique chest, they then nonchalantly invite four guests – including the victim's pater, Sir Johnstone – round for a light supper. The buffet is laid over the hidden body, after Brandon has danced (if not quite done a cartwheel) on this macabre grave.

Rope is certainly an antidote to the glut of cheery Christmas shows, and the Mayfair setting (unlike Hitchcock's Manhattan-set film version) is deeply imbued with a mood of post-First World War cynicism.

Roger Michell's production is also terrifically tense, at first illuminated only by quivering firelight – the killers' faces in shadow, just a forearm caught in the blood-red glow.

A reconfiguration of The Almeida, so that the audience encircles the tiny stage, creates a sort of dramatic pressure-cooker as Alex Waldman's Granillo starts losing his nerve – ultimately screaming like a wild animal. Phoebe Waller-Bridge offers comic relief as a footling Sloane, and Michael Elwyn's unsuspecting Sir Johnstone is a movingly sweet old gent. Blake Ritson is superb as Brandon, cool as a cucumber but starting to sweat as he is slowly cornered by their inquisitive pal, Rupert – a devilishly wily, effete performance from Bertie Carvel, pictured inset.

Finally, the hardcore avant-gardist Katie Mitchell has – shock, horror! – been reading Dr Seuss. Her latest NT production is an adaptation of the comic cartoon fantasy, The Cat in the Hat, for three- to six-year-olds! Your cutting-edge toddler may, duly, be expecting a multimedia extravaganza with a lot of po-faced, handheld cameras. But no, this half-hour show is a relatively sweet and simple bit of fun, faithfully recreating the original drawings on flats that trundle around on wheels.

Angus Wright is an absolute delight as the naughty, debonair cat-cum-magician who livens up Sally and her brother's dull suburban home, whirling his furry black tail and bouncing imaginary balls with surreal squishy and hooty sound effects. His sidekicks, two mad imps with electrified blue hair, create gleeful chaos. Luckily, the Cat tidies everything up with a Heath-Robinsonian gadget – like a giant octopus with white-gloved butlers' hands – just before Mother returns. Small but perfectly formed, the show transfers to the Young Vic in January.

'The Misanthrope' (0844 871 7612) to 13 Mar; 'Rope' (020-7359 4404) to 6 Feb; 'The Cat in the Hat' (020-7452 3000) to 18 Jan

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