Femme is the spur

Anna Friel's dedicated follower of passion in Lulu seduces Benedict Nightingale

If the Almeida had relocated in Belgravia while its Islington headquarters were upgraded, a comfy drawing-room comedy would have been an apt choice for its first production-in-exile. But it finds itself in a semi-converted bus depot down a grubby London cul-de-sac in seedy King's Cross, so a revival of Wedekind's Lulu plays is more in order. There are houses near by that might be replicas of the one where Jack the Ripper finishes off Anna Friel's tart-without-a-heart.

It's a demanding role, Lulu. Men agonise, rage, have heart attacks, threaten murder, cut their throats and get shot; and all for the love of a lady who stays detached throughout. You can see her as a life-force, an overgrown child, a destructive animal, an acquisitive playgirl, or a 19th-century pioneer who demands control over her life. But the first challenge for the actress playing Lulu is to exude - no, ooze - an effortless sexuality.

Friel passes that test as easily as Joanne Whalley-Kilmer did in March 1991, when the Almeida last gave us a shrunk-down version of Wedekind's Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box. The voice is a bit thin and shrill; but the woman herself is a creamy sensualist whose every pore palpitates and whose long legs are built for winding round male waists.

Friel also catches the blend of innocence, callousness and aphasia of a character whose reaction to the deaths of three successive husbands is as follows: invite a friend to tango, offer to perform a Milkmaid Minuet, and suggest a trip to Paris.

That's mainly in the first half of Nicholas Wright's adaptation. Then poverty strikes and London beckons: the costumes evolve from fin de siècle to modern; Friel's vestigal coarseness gets more pronounced. Peter Sullivan's sinister Jack, who has been ominously prowling the stage from the start, pounces on a poor scrubber who might just have arrived at King's Cross from the North. Even so, Lulu still tantalises and bewilders, still refuses to be explained: which is, I think, just the impression Wedekind meant to give 100 years ago.

Thanks largely to hefty cuts, Jonathan Kent's production ensures that the evening maintains pace and tension. He's also less prudish than the Almeida was in 1991, adding strong hints of paedophilia and allowing a rough Tom Georgeson to show that Lulu's relationship with her father was incestuous. You can see why the two plays originally appalled the squeamish. Even now, it's hard to find a bolder picture of the id on the rampage in a society where the men are as least as corrupt as the women.

Alan Howard makes a strong impression as Lulu's most lordly, confident protector. There are decent supporting performances from James Hillier, James Faulkener and others. But should not the Countess of Geschwitz, Lulu's lesbian stalker, seem more prominent? Johanna ter Steege convinces you of her obsession, frustration and pain, but her distraught closing words come from a character who hasn't been solidly enough established for us to care about a woman who is, after all, a more pathetic victim than any man.

Benedict Nightingale

The Times, 21.3.01.