25 MARCH 2006, Page 43

Business proposition

Lloyd Evans

Resurrection Blues Old Vic The Leningrad Siege Wilton’s Music Hall Period of Adjustment Almeida Resurrection Blues is one of the silliest things ever written by a great playwright. Comedy had always intrigued Arthur Miller and he occasionally experimented with slapstick during a fallow season. He once tried rewriting Oedipus as a New York comedy of manners. ‘Jesus, what a terrible situation,’ Oedipus says to Jocasta. ‘What the hell are we going to tell the kids?’ Not a bad start but his heart wasn’t in it and he abandoned the script.

His heart wasn’t in this either. All his defining qualities are missing, the scale, the moral passion, the all-embracing sense of righteousness, the urge to take on the Big Questions and sort mankind out before it’s too late. In this play, the characters are lightweight buffoons and the plot is kerazeee without being funny. He wants us to believe that a US news corporation would pay ‘one million dollars’ to a South American dictator for the rights to broadcast the live crucifixion of a captured freedom-fighter. Illogical and completely out of synch with current affairs. Miller gets the director he deserves in Robert Altman, whose slapdash orchestration is full of tired indulgences and uncorrected errors.

Strangely incoherent casting, too. Renta-toff James Fox, Neve Campbell from the Scream movies, Maximilian Schell from The Odessa File and Matthew Modine from, er, nothing much lately. What do this lot have in common? A grand reputation, an expensive lifestyle and a phone that doesn’t ring any more. None of them has the aptitude or the experience to pull off this tricky type of political burlesque. They flounder about like beginners, yet the audience scarcely seems to notice.

Ahead of me was a large group of merchant bankers. Thirty seats, thirty suits, all blissfully unaware that they were watching the ruins of a great literary reputation. At the interval, as they sauntered gaily into their roped-off area for Champers-’n’-nibbles, I heard them chatting politely about what a wonderful evening they were having. Fair enough, if this is what the Old Vic wants to provide — freebie theatre for corporate curiosity-seekers. It’s a perverse arrangement but it suits everyone: the audiences don’t care what they’re watching as long as they get the adrenalin rush of seeing big stars. And the stars don’t care what they’re performing as long as they get the adrenalin rush of grateful audiences.

One snag. This doesn’t produce the best theatre. But the Old Vic’s clear aim is not ‘the best theatre’ but ‘the least risk’. A play? No, this is a business plan in action. Look at the package. A star venue, a star director, a star cast and a star writer. Deal done. The quality of the production has been offset against the famous names in the company. Never mind that it’s a lousy show, there’ll be flocks of autographhunters happy to pay good prices and the chortling investors will get their cash back. Oddly enough, the most satisfying part of the production is the lavish, advert-studded programme. Each of its 36 hard and beautiful pages gleams like a varnished fingernail. The photos are gorgeously atmospheric and the monographs of Altman and Miller, though written with an air of pained reverence, are more sincerely felt than anything you’ll hear on stage.

I was amazed by my trip to Wilton’s Music Hall near Cable Street in the East End. Alas, The Leningrad Siege is a dreary soap written by a Spanish professor of literature but the theatre is in a marvellous state of shored-up dereliction. Well worth a visit, preferably at night. You may be tempted to donate to its restoration fund. But think first. In its sad and glorious decay the building is perfect. Restored it may be ruined all over again.

The Almeida has struck gold with Period of Adjustment, an unusual Tennessee Williams play that blends high melodrama with domestic comedy. Terrific work from all the cast. Jared Harris is enormously charming as the virtuous, honest Ralph. I was hugely impressed by Benedict Cumberbatch (never say that name with your mouth full), who extends his range here as a damaged sexual inadequate. The tiny but brilliant Lisa Dillon has suffered from being partnered with some very big names indeed. I’ve seen her overshadowed by actors with larger chests, fatter salaries and more lines than her, but here she’s centre stage and she makes the most of it. Her sweet, sad and inhibited Isabel trembles with warmth and innocence. A hugely successful production. But be in no rush to see it. This show’s got legs. It’ll come to you.