14 JANUARY 1995, Page 38


Sunset Boulevard (Minskoff, Broadway & Adelphi) Show Boat (Gershwin, Broadway) Love! Valour! Compassion! (Manhattan Theatre Club) The Libertine/Man of Mode (Royal Court)

Four Normans

Sheridan Morley

So who would ever have thought it? Of the four stars who have tottered down Sunset Boulevard as Norma Desmond since it first opened 18 months ago, far and away the best is the least likely cast- ing. The first, Patti LuPone, played her as a manic diva somewhere halfway from Maria Callas to Gracie Fields on speed; the second, Glenn Close (now to be seen as Norma on Broadway) is perfectly effi- cient in the role but faintly uncharismatic, as if awaiting the movie version; the third, Betty Buckley (now back at the Adelphi) is so hugely efficient that you simply won- der why, when the Talkies came in to ruin her, she didn't go into Real Estate instead of a career crisis. It was only the fourth Norma, our own Elaine Paige (playing the role over Christmas and likely I trust to return to it in the summer), who caught the warmth, the humour and the sheer humanity of the woman. Only with Paige did I feel an audience truly warm to the show, care about its outcome and want her to survive the vagaries of Hollywood fashion and the predatory demands of young screenwriters on the make.

True, the Broadway version is much stronger in its other casting, notably George Hearn as the butler/husband, but it is Paige who has brought the show to its full life, and at the end of a year which she began equally stunningly as Edith Piaf: those of us inclined to balk a bit when her own management ritually bills her as 'the first lady of the British musical' had better start getting used to it: she now is.

Elsewhere in a quiet Broadway winter, Hal Prince has directed a new Show Boat as though it were Porgy & Bess, which makes it both too dark and so top-heavy that it has trouble staying afloat despite the first lady of Broadway and another Elaine, Stritch, as a feisty Parthy and some wondrous sets.

Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Com- passion! (now transferring to Broadway from the Manhattan Theatre Club) takes more than three hours to say about eight gay men sharing an address roughly what `Glad you could make it. We're having a season of award winning Canadian animated films.' Kevin Elyot's My Night With Reg manages to say in less than two, but is wonderfully played and deserves a London life ideally somewhere like Hampstead.

One play is just a play: two are an event. The recent history of English-speaking drama, from Nicholas Nickelby across 15 years to Angels in America, suggests that audiences like going for the double attraction especially if the joins are inventive.

For the Royal Court and now his new Out of Joint touring company, the direc- tor Max Stafford-Clark has already given us the double of Timberlake Wertenbak- er's Our Country's Good and the play it is about, The Recruiting Officer. Now, in a similarly inspired pairing at the Court, we get George Etherege's Man of Mode and a new play by Stephen Jeffreys about Etherege and more particularly his real- life central character in that play, Charles ifs friend and confidant the Earl of Rochester.

As portrayed originally by Etherege in 1676, Rochester was a likeable kind of rogue and rake who had a way with the ladies but remained oddly unpopular with audiences, which explains why the play was largely neglected for about 200 years. As portrayed by Jeffreys now, he is the Libertine: a far more complex and even sinister character, positively eager to inspire audience loathing but always aware that nobody can ever hate himself as much as he does. David Westhead, doubling the leads in both plays, offers a stunning and scabrous libertine: he haunts The Man of Mode, lurking backstage while it is first performed to remind the cast that life just isn't like that, rather as though the real Macbeth were to be found wandering around the theatre explaining how little Shakespeare under- stood what it really felt like to be a mur- derous King of Scotland in difficult times.

When it comes to the real thing, Etherege's dark Restoration romp, Stafford-Clark's team seems less entirely sure of itself: having given us Jeffreys's gloss on the piece, they are uncertain of its original style.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating insight into the process of period play- making, and the second that Stafford- Clark has given us.

The real Rochester, as exhumed by Jef- freys, was the most dangerous of Charles ti's allies and friends: a Royalist who was at the same time radically anti-Monar- chist and deeply subversive, an atheist who finished up a born-again Christian, and a lyric poet who traded in pornogra- phy, he was a vastly more complex charac- ter than Etherege was prepared to write, and Jeffreys has hilariously managed to lift him away from his period, so that we end up with a character out of an early John Osborne tirade rampaging through the periwigs of an altogether other age and tradition.