10 FEBRUARY 2007, Page 30

Wicked wake

Lloyd Evans Sit and Shiver Hackney Empire Pinter's People Theatre Royal Haymarket The Seagull Royal Court Steven Berkoff came home to Hackney last week with an excellent new autobiographical play. Berkoff was brought up in a family of secular Jews who honoured their dead in traditional style with a week-long wake held in a room cleared of comfortable furniture, where relatives would gather on hard benches to drink tea and reminisce about the deceased. This is the setting. An uncomplicated storyline is enriched by broad and dextrous characterisations. Berkoff plays Lionel, a whingeing middleaged tailor (in an oddly ill-fitting suit) who bickers non-stop with his bossy, weepy, yappy wife, played with pots of gusto by Sue Kelvin. The pick of the ensemble is Barry Davis as an ancient tub-thumping Marxist who celebrates the memory of the Cable Street riots and denounces consumerism, the glorification of sex and the ruinous triumph of the individual over the common good. At times his views sound quite fashionable, even Cameroonian.

The production has some mannerisms that I didn't appreciate at first. Rather than sitting on benches, the family are arranged on seven identical square boxes which look too theatrical for a show so firmly rooted in real life. And why consume fake cakes and make-believe tea rather than the real thing? Each scene ends with a surge of lights and a passage of stylised staccato dancing which seems superfluous until the second half when the dead man's mistress makes an unexpected visit. After that the caricatured dances become hilariously funny and dramatically logical: only the grotesque distortions of mime could express the family's shock at the mistress's revelations. This is a rich, populist and not quite perfect genrecrossing play which offers a documentary version of reality in an elevated comic style. As with Mike Leigh, the reality is perfectly legible while the comic exaggerations, rather than blurring the details, add sharpness. Quite a treat.

Bill Bailey's new show at the Haymarket is a run-through of Pinter's sketches. Sketch shows are of their nature sketchy and though half of these efforts don't really work there are two or three that approach the heights of great comedy. For Pinter fans this is an unmissable evening. In 'Trouble in the Works', a shop steward informs the manager of a tool factory that the workers have 'taken against' the products they make. 'Which products exactly?' The bizarre dialogue that follows — a sequence of tool names spat out between the characters — brings to mind what Empson said about Christopher Marlowe's love of words. His mind is clotted with astonishment at them. The surreal verbal acrobatics end with a punchline as conventional as a custard pie in the face. Manager: If they don't want to make machine tools, what do they want to make? Shop steward: Trouble.

The best of the sketches involves a cabcontroller struggling to give simple instructions to a fabulously inept but obtusely helpful driver. I'd love to see it done at the next Secret Policeman's Ball with Cleese as the controller and Atkinson as the driver. It's a classic.

Talking of which, have you read this stuff about Ian Rickson's Seagull at the Royal Court? It's all true. This is a once-in-adecade production. Highlights include Pearce Quigley's absurdly impassive performance as the gloomy teacher Medvedenko. Carey Mulligan has a sweet and terrible tenderness as Nina while Art Malik, decanting his lines like a fine Burgundy, offers a suave and restful presence as Dorn. A couple of niggles. In the play's opening moments and in its final tragicomic beat the action moves too slowly. Chiwetel Ejiofor's Trigorin may have the geniality and freedom of spirit that the role requires but he lacks the sly egotism that turns Trigorin into a manipulative cynic by the play's end. The leading honours go to Mackenzie Crook's ravaged Konstantin, an artfully unfunny performance, and to Kristin Scott Thomas as Irina, a role exquisitely suited to her looks and style. There is, it's true, a type of man who isn't moved by Kristin Scott Thomas. The gay man. The rest of us are as bewitched as we might be by the Alps at sunset, by heat and cold and beauty mingled in a prospect of distant grandeur. Perhaps she's boring as hell in real life but on stage Scott Thomas is as graceful and mesmerising as anything you'll see outside of Regent's Park lions' enclosure. Let's hope someone has the bright idea to get her Irina on film Bagsy me be focus-puller. Not surprisingly this stunning production has sold out so if you've got a ticket be careful. Someone may kill you for it.