Royal Court, London
It's as if the noses of an entire audience were pressed against a Selfridges Christmas window. There's no mistaking that Melly Still is a designer: her production of Nation is a parade of tableaux. Giant water panels contain shadows of dolphins and the plummeting, graceful figures of divers; a goofily grinning shark looks set to steam headfirst into the stalls. A massive night sky stretches over the stage, with the stars telling their own story in patterns.
Very spectacular. But to what purpose? Mark Ravenhill's adaptation of Terry Pratchett's novel is an impressive-looking mush. It begins with the obliteration of South Pacific islanders by a tsunami, and meanders into the meeting of two cultures. A surviving high-born island man meets a shipwrecked Victorian gel, who unleashes her bun, starts to wear a grass skirt over her crinoline frame and tucks a flower behind her once well-scrubbed ear: "You look different, Daphne."
He (Gary Carr) ripples magnificently; she (Emily Taaffe) squeaks appropriately. She learns how to deliver a baby, which turns out to be a very cheerful puppet. He nearly gets bumped off. She points out that the British have had some good scientific ideas. He shows her that most metaphysical theories were foreseen by his ancestors, who, though deep, prove to be unprepossessing: it's unusual to see so many gods with very wide pumpkin-style faces; one of them seems to be wearing specs. There's a lot of jigging around on the island, where dead people wear masks that look like brown paper bags with ears, and live people bond in what used to be called native dancing and much unbridled emotion.
So far so hippyishly consistent â€“ which is to say, not coherent, but wearing an unchanging smile. Yet the evening ends not with a mingling of cultures but with the triumph of the nation state and the assumption that men and women will behave differently. He stays effortlessly exercising power on his island; she goes off to England because her dad's been crowned, bound for a life of tea-drinking among people who look as if their faces have been ironed. It's a strange combination of sloppy bien-pensant and buttoned-up conservatism.
Michael Wynne's last play at the Royal Court sent a frisson across the stalls when a moggy was bumped off. Late in the evening, his new play elicits a similar shuddering gasp, of a kind not often heard in the theatre. The Priory also features a perfectly realised nightmare media-mother, sentimental about her children, beady about her colleagues, chic, boastful yet resourceful in disaster: a woman who makes her friends wilt but saves lives. Rachel Stirling gives her a hyper-plausibility: a schoolgirl bully gleams through her glossy telly-exec repartee and every scornful flick of her limbs. Robert Innes Hopkins's design meticulously parodies a country house in which the cushions are embroidered with stags' heads.
Still, this 21st-century version of a 50s comedy thriller isn't sufficiently high-wired in its farce (men in drag expect a round of applause on each entry) nor acute enough in its social comedy, where the big laugh is supposed to come from a humorous cockney putting her ill-bred hoof in it: "I love you gays". The couples spending New Year in a rented old holy house were always bound to disobligingly snog each other, fall out, decide that iPods aren't the answer to everything. It's a given. A priori.
The Edgar Degas in Timberlake Wertenbaker's new play The Line is constantly dispensing advice to his talented protégée: line is more truthful than painting that's stuffed with narrative; artists become good by repetition. Wertenbaker has taken it all to heart. Her play is a series of small scenes, in each of which Sarah Smart's Suzanne Valodon rushes into the artist's studio, shows herself to be both talented and unrecognised, squawks the name of a famous man ("His name is Erik. Erik Satie") and scarpers, leaving Degas with art. Then she does it again. Good actors are stuck in poses. Henry Goodman is furrowed; as his housekeeper, Selina Cadell, is smoothly restrained. Wertenbaker spun a successful drama from the art world 17 years ago with Three Birds Alighting on a Field: walking this line proves less rewarding here.
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Guardian: Nation, The Priory and The Line | Theatre reviews
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