5 APRIL 2003, Page 49

Sound and fury

Lloyd Evans

Crossing Jerusalem Tricycle Claw Greenwich Playhouse Lags BAC

Lcrossed London to see Crossing usalem. The curtain rose at 8 p.m. By 9.15 I was crossing London again, I'm afraid. The plot of Julia Pascal's noisy new play is both elaborate and threadbare. A Jewish family visits an Arab restaurant in east Jerusalem. One of the waiters is the son of their former gardener and he interrupts their meal demanding compensation for his dad's work-related injuries. The family refuses. There is a lot of shouting, then a lot more shouting, then an interval. Suzanne Bertish. playing the mother, has so much style and wit about her that it's hard to believe she has wound up as a struggling estate agent. Nor would such an attractive personality settle for a husband like Sergei, a fat, bald, kind-hearted slob of a taxi-driver beautifully played by Constantine Gregory.

These actors have far too much talent for their roles. The younger players far too little, The dramatic transitions are so slight and contrived that they stifle rather than excite one's attention. The dialogue is stilted and over-engineered. Even after 45 minutes. the actors are making remarks that would sound clumsy during a scene of exposition. 'I'm your sister.' It's my birthday. I'm 30 today.' The characters themselves are half-human, half-argument — all grudge, grievance, grimace and gizzard. The first act felt like one of those For/Against columns in the Independent doggedly adapted for the theatre — everything perfectly balanced and banal.

What the second act held, I cannot say. In the interval I sat in the bar, savouring my Shiraz and my chagrin. After ten minutes an explosion of bing-bonging bells and a shrieking voice summoned me back for Act II. Nothing could induce me to return, not even the sight of Harold Pinter, the noted war-poet, striding back into the punishment chamber. I should add, in fairness, that the theatre was full and the audience seemed to be enjoying something. God knows what.

There are too many small theatres in London. Too many upstairs nooks and converted function rooms, too many basements and alcoves and white-washed priest-holes where troupes of show-offs enact fantasies of stardom for cliques of misguided devotees. The names of these venues range from the breezily optimistic — 'The Space', The Place', `The Gallery', 'The Platform' — to the eye-stabbingly ironic, The Futility Room,' The Pit', `The Gallows', `The Room Above The Pub Below'. I climbed a rickety staircase in Greenwich to watch Howard Barker's 1975 play Claw. The cast numbered seven, the audience 12. The actors gave it their all but I couldn't see why anyone would revive a play so stuck in its era, and so heavily indebted to Pinter for its technique and to Osborne for its political outlook. It felt about as modern as the space shuttle. The twist at the end is that the central character is drowned in a bath. Some mischiefmaker within the production company arranged for this deed to be displayed on the publicity material, thus eliminating all suspense from the evening. I hope they flush out the saboteur.

At a cobwebbed side-closet at the Battersea Arts Centre, I saw Ron Hutchinson's prison psychodrama, Lags. Once again, a spirited company was let down by a hectic, lightweight play. Lots of shouting. Lots of charging around. Furniture aplenty hurled hither and thither. Great cascades of spittle deposited in the laps of the unfortunates trapped in the first three rows. Spectacle, yes, but no theatre. At the end, there was thunderous applause which the cast imagined was for their benefit. No, we were congratulating ourselves on our stamina and forbearance. As the clapping stopped, the lead actor stepped forward and started talking about a bucket. This vessel, he said, would be passed around and he begged us to fill it with our bounty. It would enable a nearby hospital to buy an expensive machine to help the dying die more slowly. I deposited a fistful of coppers one by one. They generated a lot of noise and made no difference to anything at all. Like the play.

To lighten my mood I decided to visit a tiny north London venue where another squad of pain-athletes has mounted a Strindberg triple bill. I dialled the theatre's number and was overcome by a wave of despair, as if I were calling the Samaritans. I got no answer. Just a machine. I left an enthusiastic message but I've heard nothing since. I'm rather worried. I hope they haven't done anything foolish — like pack it in and get jobs.