You walk down a little alleyway off grim King's Cross, the warm glow of yellow light seeping through the walls on the left like some alien being and a welcoming sign for the Almeida above the door at the end of the passage. The company has displayed its talent before for finding rundown buildings and turning them into exciting performance spaces. This time it has surpassed itself with the unpromising raw material of an old coach station that it bravely chose to take over, instead of the Old Vic, while its home in Islington is being refurbished. Once inside, the inviting, mirrored foyer seems perfectly formed to accomodate a full house. The main theatre - there is also a studio - has a wide-angle stage of a kind that London desperately needs. Let's hope the building has a life beyond the Almeida's tenancy. There's only one quibble. It would be a generous gesture to reduce the number of people required to cram into each of the curved rows that currently can't cope with more than one ample bottom each. Otherwise, a triumph.
The combination of sex and Anna Friel is the promise that will draw people to this new venue in such an improbable location. Friel is the second ex-soap star to make her London theatre debut in a week. People go to Lulu expecting to see Marilyn Monroe and Louise Brooks rolled into one. Yes, she seduces every man she meets, in Friel's case entangling them with her long, enticing legs. But her story is a downer - the antidote to pleasure. Frank Wedekind's playbeing performed for the second time by the Almeida, tells of a young, beautiful German woman who climbs high up the social ladder before toppling off into the arms of the murderous Jack the Ripper. The theatre's seedy location could not be more suitable, and Jonathan Kent's production shifts from mid-twentieth century Germany to the streets outside where prostitutes, drug addicts and hobos regularly loiter.
Friel undoubtedly looks stunning, but her lack of theatrical experience sometimes shows. her flat, babyish voice indicates the extent to which Lulu has been emotionally damaged. Nicholas Wright's crisp, blackly funny adaptation, which returns to Wedekind's original script, emphasises her past, especially the sexual abuse she endured as a child by her so-called father. She doesn't know how to exploit or even to relate to men. All she can do is bed them. The only emotion she shows is for those who treat her badly, especially Alan Howard's louche and powerful Dr Schoning. Although she's needy and dependent when her husbands are alive, she's indifferent to their deaths. Three come to a violent end. Now surely Lady Bracknell would have something to say about that.
Wedekind took a cold look at mankind, aware that those people who condemn Lulu are often the most hypocritical. Those few private performances that took place during his lifetime must have seemed startlingly unsentimental. In a gruesome scene, an overweight, middle-aged man matter-of-factly suggests to a young girl's mother that he should induct her daughter into the ways of making love. Peter Sullivan as Jack the Ripper hovers in the background throughout, a constant reminder of Lulu's fate. It's also easy to imagine that he is Wedekind coolly watching the tragedy unfold.
In spite of Wright's heroic efforts, the play still sprawls in the second half, and, crucially, it's hard to feel any sympathy for the self-sacrificing, lesbian Countess of Geschwitz, even at the point of her violent death. By moving away from expressionism, Kent's production makes us more aware of how flat the characters are, and none of the cast - apart from Friel - has much to work with. The image becomes all-important and designer Rob Howell uses the space brilliantly, creating a decaying, decadent setting seen through voyeuristic, tarnished screens which are swept away at the beginning of each scene. I've seen many productions of Lulu, including the previous one at the Almeida, and none of them has worked. The play remains an unresolved puzzle. Maybe the English and Wedekind simply don't mix. This may be as good as it gets.
Time Out, 28.3. - 4.4.01.
(Time Out London play choice number 2.)