REVIEWS: Happy Days at Lyttelton, South Bank Five stars. Comfort me with apples Hampstead Theatre,

The Beckett estate was not slow off the mark to bring Deborah Warner s earlier experimental production of Footfall

REVIEWS: Happy Days at Lyttelton, South Bank

Five star rating

Comfort me with apples

Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage

Three star rating

The Beckett estate was not slow off the mark to bring Deborah Warner's earlier experimental production of Footfalls to a close for too cavalier an approach to the playwright's notoriously prescriptive directions. So critics here may wag their fingers at Beckett's mound of scorched earth being replaced by a post-apocalyptic Middle Eastern bunker or perhaps the remnants of a global-warmed world. So be it - let them crow. For although the epic stage design stretches the letter of the text, it also provides the non-specific but evocative setting for a contemporary, highly charged, universally-loaded production of Beckett's masterpiece on the futility of life as we live it. Key to the enterprise is a captivating performance by Fiona Shaw who, small amid the vast landscape, still manages to meet everyone's eye, almost transgressing her loneliness. She gives Winnie as naturalistic a spirit as it's possible to have while finding yourself buried up to your waist - and then your neck - in the ground. With a tendency to pass time humming The Archers' signature tune, this frazzled but determinedly jovial Winnie allows irony to creep in only at her darkest moments. A quick interval burst of the Happy Days sitcom theme tune keeps that desperation at bay. But the second half is as bracing a piece of theatre as you're likely to find on the London stage. With blackened teeth, wild eyes and parched voice, Shaw uses her febrile features to both provoke and disturb, confirming all we might expect from our own time in the sun.

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Until March 1.

David Minto

Comfort me with apples

Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage

Apples, apples everywhere but very little comfort - except maybe the cold kind. Nell Leyshon's curious agricultural play, set on an apple farm in Somerset, had its premiere at Hampstead last year. Since then it has been recast and is about to embark on a national tour. It seems even stranger the second time around. It has a distinctly poetic voice, full of unanswered questions, primitive rituals and religious symbolism. Irene (Veronica Roberts) has just lost her husband Arthur - suddenly. How did he die? We never find out. She still has visions of Arthur and feels his weight on her body at night. Her life is ruled by superstitions, usually concerned with apples. Her dearly beloved son Roy (Jonathan McGuinness) has little interest in the family apple business, which is dying. Her daughter Bren (Penny Layden) has been forbidden access to the house although we never find out what sin she has committed. Mike Britton's set is a miracle of ingenuity. It is not easy to create the claustrophobic atmosphere of a tiny farmhouse kitchen on that huge stage. But he has created a multiple set, covered with apples and a constant stream of falling leaves on to the uncomfortably uneven floor. I missed the smell of apples that pervaded the theatre last time. On the whole, it was not as enjoyable as the first time round - even though the new cast is as effective as before. Maybe this is because I knew what was coming and that many of the questions raised would not be provided with an answer.

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