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At the Piccadilly in its long-awaited debut, the problem with Jerry Herman's "Mack and Mabel" is exactly what it was on Broadway more than 20 years ago: great score, pity about the book.

Unlike Herman's other musical classics, from "Hello, Dolly!" through "La Cage aux Folles," this one has no original novel or play or movie to fall back on. Instead it relies on the two characters of Mack Sennett (Howard McGillin, above), the silent-film pioneer, and his star Mabel Normand (Caroline O'Connor). They were not individually an attractive pair, and there is historical evidence that they were only ever a love match in limited terms.

Accordingly, the late Michael Stewart, in writing the original book, and now Herman himself in trying to patch it up, have had to take considerable liberties with Mack and Mabel's lives, ages and general relationship, and yet we still don't really care about either of them. As a result, we are left with a sequence of showstopping numbers that have no show to stop. Paul Kerryson's production, in from Leicester, is also disastrously underfinanced. You always need to throw money, and then a lot more money, at a Herman musical, because they are essentially pageants of great showmanship in a tradition that goes back through Irving Berlin to George M. Cohan.


The miracle of the National Theatre's new "Mother Courage" is that nobody in rehearsal ever seems to have used the word Brechtian. David Hare's new adaptation, like his recent Galileo for the Almeida, cuts through the undergrowth of apparatus and footnoting that has grown up this half century around the German dramatist and gives us a brisk, cool version committed to no pet scholastic or political theories as to what the play might really be about.

Similarly, Diana Rigg in the title role takes the straight showbiz route. Recalling perhaps that Brecht himself once suggested either Ethel Merman or Mae West as his perfect Broadway casting for the lady with the cart, she gives us a legendary survivor--unafraid to twist the knife or tug the heartstrings as the moment and her survival demands.

The director, Jonathan Kent, has also surrounded her with some of the best character actors in town (we even get a fleeting visit from Michael Gough as the Very Old Colonel), so what usually becomes a one-woman show is, in fact, filled out with all the personalities of an epic. But precisely because she is not confined within a single thesis, Rigg's power here is immense. Dragging her followers across the world in pursuit of the wars that provide her only livelihood, she is at once comic and tragic, terrific and terrible in her Yorkshire accent and her timeless belief that God only helps those who help themselves to anything they can lay their hands on.

A new score by Jonathan Dove evokes Weill and Sondheim in equal measure, and a play whose previous history at the National (and, indeed, the Barbican) has never been a happy one suddenly comes to brilliant British dramatic life for the first time.

We drama critics are an ungrateful lot: We complain, with some justification, that even in a year as strong as this for new stage writing, the obsessions have been with Soho gangsterdom, poker playing and other such all-male pursuits behind closed doors. Where, we ask, are the "state of the nation" plays, the ones that David Hare might recognize as dealing with the broad issues of Britain as we fall towards the end of the century?


In her new "Break of Day" at the Royal Court, Timberlake Wertenbaker offers us an entire shopping list of social ills. Designed surely to play in tandem with Chekhov's "Three Sisters," her script tackles childlessness among the achieving classes, the troubles an actor has in choosing between his art and his overdraft, the collapse of public education and healthcare these last five years, the exploitation of Eastern Europe as a baby farm and, at the last, the right any of us have to echo Chekhov's fall-of-the-curtain optimism about a better tomorrow.

Any of these issues might have made a play. The problem here is that all of them don't, which may be why Wertenbaker, once the most fashionable of Sloane Square dramatists, has had an unjustly rough ride from most of my colleagues. It is quite true that her first act uneasily resembles one of those BBC radio mid-morning chat shows at which a trendy debate is cranked up around a table of professional psychiatrists and welfare workers and social healers intent on making a living out of the age-old worry that we ought to be healthier and richer and happier than we ever are.

But then, after the interval, Wertenbaker homes in on just one of these agonies, the inability of two middle-aged, middle-class media couples to have babies, and it is then that her play does catch fire.

One couple (Nigel Terry and Catherine Russell, as the actor and the feminist magazine editor) elects to go through the agonies of induced fertility to no avail; the other (Brian Protheroe and Maria Friedman, as a record producer and his one-time star singer) chooses Eastern Europe, by the look of it Bulgaria, and the complex possibilities of adoption. This is where Wertenbaker moves brilliantly into Michael Frayn territory, as a couple of well-meaning if desperate Brits have to be taught the arts of bribery and corruption by ex-communists now willing to sell anything that moves, even at a crawl.

Along the way we also get some desperately inadequate sub-Sondheim songs to cover scene changes, and the lurking shadow of Chekhov, since there is also a third "sister" here, a disillusioned lecturer angrily played by Anita Dobson. Nobody much wants to go to Moscow anymore, but Werten-baker does, I think, want us to know that we, too, are at the end of an era and the collapse of a regime. But which? Capitalism? State benefits? The right of women to work as if they were husbands rather than wives? The belief that no woman is complete without a baby? All of this gets aired, as at a nightmarish Chelsea dinner party for the chattering classes, but as there is no real solution or radical addition to any of it, Wertenbaker just moves on to another issue without ever making us care about any of these people for more than about ten minutes each.

Max Stafford-Clark's production is suitably chilly and fluid but would have looked a lot better were it to be played in tandem with "Three Sisters," the way that on their last collaboration "Our Country's Good" played in partnership with "The Recruiting Officer." That, surely, was the original idea here, and it seems willful to have abandoned it, presumably in the cause of economy.

-- By Sheridan Morley

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