Theatre: Reboot turns Anouilh tragedy into farce

Drawing blanks: Rory Keenan as Gene in Welcome Home, Captain Fox!

Jean Anouilh, the most popular French playwright of the mid-20th century, was equally successful in Paris and London. Since then he has been shamefully ignored in our capital. So I was thrilled to learn the Donmar Warehouse was to stage Le Voyageur sans baggage. Sadly, Welcome Home, Captain Fox! is not a translation but an adaptation.

Eighteen years after the First World War, we meet Gene, a war veteran who has total amnesia. His family (who had believed he had died in the war) instantly recognises him as their lost son. But he does not recognise them and is appalled to learn that when he was a young man he was not a nice person at all. He was cruel: he killed birds and animals for fun. He stole money from his mother. He had an affair with his brother’s wife. He raped the housemaid. As he learns more and more about his past life, it becomes clear that there is only one thing for him to do.

Anthony Weigh has taken the French tragedy and turned it into an American farce. The action is updated to the 1950s and relocated to the Hamptons. Blanche McIntyre’s production is entertaining and Katherine Kingsley, Danny Webb and Sian Thomas are often very amusing. But why not do the pièce noire Anouilh actually wrote and which made his name in 1937? The drama no longer has the stark inevitability of a Greek tragedy (which Anouilh cleverly subverts) and the amnesiac hero (Rory Keenan) is now a much more superficial character.

Sarah Kane’s Cleansed at the National Theatre is extremely disturbing and unpleasant to watch. It was written shortly before she hanged herself in 1998. She was only 28 and famous for her graphic portrayals of violence. Prisoners are degraded and tortured. Actors spend much of their time dressing and undressing, appearing in the nude, simulating sex, having sex changes and being force-fed.

Katie Mitchell’s production is very efficient. The cast of seven has been choreographed: I felt I was watching dance theatre. The production, clever though it is, proves conclusively that any merit this repulsive play may have has been grossly overrated.

Robert Holman’s plays are about life as it is lived by ordinary people. German Skerries, very nicely acted in this revival by Alice Hamilton at Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, was last seen nearly 40 years ago. The setting is a nature reserve in Teeside in 1976. The skerries are treacherous rocks, a sanctuary for cormorants and in serious danger from industrial pollution. Holman has said that his play is about the desire to move on and do better.

A young man, a birdwatcher (George Evans), is cleverer than he thinks he is. He just needs his wife (Katie Moore) to give him confidence and make him take some

O-levels – if he really wants promotion at work, that is. An elderly primary schoolteacher and birdwatcher (Howard Ward) gives him some advice: “Never regret. Life’s too short. Nothing is important”.

German Skerries, lyrical and understated, is so very subtle that there is almost nothing there; or at least not enough to fully engage an audience.