22 MAY 1993, Page 36


Redeeming Vices (New End Theatre) The Chinese Wolf (Bush Theatre)

Saki and sinister

Sheridan Morley

Like the Omar Khayyam from whom he stole his pen-name (And when like her, 0 Saki, you shall pass/among the Guests star-scattered on the grass'), Hector Hugh Munro does not seem to be at the forefront of critical attention these days. Born in 1870 in Burma, a political sketchwriter for the Westminster Gazette, killed in 1916 dur- ing the first war at the French front, he lives best in his tales of Clovis and the Unbearable Bassington as a sort of minor P.G. Wodehouse just ahead of his time.

Yet there is rather more to Saki than that, and at the New End in Hampstead (a theatre which has recently performed a similarly useful historical and literary exer- cise by unearthing J.R. Ackerley's gay Pris- oners of War from the 1920s), Michael Browning has courageously tried to patch some Saki sketches together into a country- house-party comedy of appalling manners.

Strong overtones of Hay Fever here sent me back to a preface Noel once wrote for some Saki stories:

On looking back, I realise he was one of the most significant influences on my career ... his idea of an England occupied by Ger- many in 1912 was one I shamelessly bor- rowed for my Peace in Our Time set in 1945 ...but had he survived World War One, how would he have reacted to that maligned peri- od known as the Hectic Twenties, when upstarts like Michael Arlen and Noel Cow- ard flourished like green bay trees in the frenzied atmosphere of cocktail parties, trea- sure hunts and enthusiastically publicised decadence? He would undoubtedly have found many targets for his sardonic wit in that gay decade, but I have a feeling it wouldn't have been his cup of tea„ his satire was based on a fixed status quo, which in his time had only just begun to wobble a bit.

This then is the world Browning tries to recapture in his Redeeming Vices, and thanks to some splendid, stentorian perfor- mances from Richenda Carey and Stephanie Turner, a long-lost world of dragon aunts and snobbery with violence is lovingly recaptured in Philip Grout's agile production set 'at Torywood, the family seat of Mrs Thunderford in 1913'.

There, assorted bright young prewar things are assembled to deliver the best of Saki's one-liners: 'An inane person, but nice to have around the house, so long as it is someone else's'; 'A woman who insists on taking her husband out and about is like a cat playing with some mouse long after she has killed it'; 'She's gone to her room to have as much of a headache as she can manage'; 'If you had nursed a viper at your breast, it would have died of food poison- ing'; 'You can't expect a boy to be vicious if he hasn't been to public school'; 'You English never go to extremes' — 'Oh, I don't know, we go to the Albert Hall occa- sionally'. They don't write them like that any more, more's the pity.

It had to come to London at last: after weeks in which the stages of Hampstead and the Royal Court have been filled with a nameless post-modernist terror stalking the streets of Toronto and New York, David Ashton's The Chinese Wolf is at our door, or to be more precise at the Bush.

A mournful hunchback (Ronan Vibert) has been left by his Italian Mama in charge of the family scrapyard in South London, soon to be visited there by a lesbian mechanic called Ruby, her ex-lover who likes dressing as a nun, two hoodlums out to kill them and, best of all, a late entrance by Desmond Barrit looking like an over- weight amalgam of Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet and having himself a ball as the Mr Big-to-Enormpus who wants to turn the yard implausibly into a new fun centre.

As this character's name is Billy Chor- tles, it is clear that Ashton's gift for subtle satire doesn't run that deep: but he has a nightmarish talent to abuse, and although this is a play which will go anywhere in search of a new idea or even a halfway decent scrap of dialogue, it suggests a dark, brooding talent somewhere between Joe Orton and Walt Disney, overlaid with a seriously weird kind of Gothic high camp: `I've just killed my Dad, Mother's gone to Brazil, and now trick soap,' screams Max in disgust as his hands get covered in black paint.

The Chinese Wolf isn't very strongly plot- ted, but along the way it does divert audi-

ences steeped in the Rocky Horror school of Hollywood nostalgia for actors who go bump in the night. 'A hundred per cent British fun,' screams Mr Big at the son Mother has lovingly set up to be blow- torched by hoods in Disneyland masks: 30 years ago, they would have needed Orson Welles for the film. Dominic Dromgoole directs the frantic stage traffic.