AT FIRST glance this new co-production by the Tramway Theatre and Untitled looks like a hugely overblown project, the kind of theatrical fantasy that ought not to work.

In form, it's a fairly conventional three-act drama for three actors, written by Pamela Carter, about the ferocious love-affair between the poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, which began in Paris in 1871, shattered Verlaine's marriage to the heartbreakingly young Mathilde, and ended miserably two years later, with Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in the wrist, and being jailed for 18 months for homosexual practices.

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What makes the show exceptional, though - apart from the intensity of the two superb leading performances from Robin Laing and Sam Swainsbury - is the director/designer Stewart Laing's astonishing set, which fills the huge exhibition space of Tramway 2 with a great wooden slope, high enough at its upper end to allow the sinking into it of a deep hole like a giant grave, around which the audience sit and look down on the action.

In each of the three scenes, the dramatically lit space below represents a bathroom - a luxurious one in the Paris home of Verlaine's parents-in-law, the filthy toilet of a room the poets share in London, and a bleak hotel facility in Brussels, where the journey ends.

As a theatrical device, in other words, this set- cum-installation is hugely extravagant and audacious. It's also breathtakingly successful.

At a stroke, Carter and Laing take us into one of the hidden places of life, the scene of unmentionable acts and taboo bodily functions.

They also give us an odd sense of looking down, like gods or survivors, on people who are long dead, part of our not-quite-buried cultural past.

And the long slope, tailing downwards from this bright pit of intensity towards the Tramway doors, captures something of the frightening truth that most lives have a brief, shaping moment of intensity that nothing later can match.

That was certainly true for Verlaine and Rimbaud, marked for ever by the brilliance and squalor of their two-year rampage together through Europe. And it's probably more true for the rest of us than we sometimes dare to admit.




THERE comes a time when rock bands from the 1960s have to make the decision to grow old gracefully, bow out and retire. Or they can say to hell with it, and keep on rocking like there's no tomorrow. The members of Blue yster Cult have clearly chosen the latter.

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These Long Island rockers have become a multimillion selling institution, capable of selling out arenas and touring well past the age that most people start to think of retirement. It's all thanks to a style of heavy rock - which has seen the group walk a tightrope between commercial AOR territory (their most famous hit, Don't Fear the Reaper) and more leftfield prog-rock explorations - that has earned them the tag of the thinking man's heavy metal band.

Of course there's something hugely ironic about middle-aged men blasting out such numbers as Od'd on Life Itself, but there's a welcome sense of self-awareness to this band. Not least in The Golden Age of Leather with its "Our best years have passed us by" lyric and frontman Eric Bloom's quips about his own age.

Disappointingly, the initial numbers were like listening to a pub rock band - albeit an incredibly tight one - as the group opened with material that favoured a traditional rock vein. A matter not helped by the choice of venue, whose tasteful style-bar surroundings were at odds with the hard-rockin' attitude emanating from the stage.

But it was upon the unveiling of such material as Shooting Shark and The Last Days of May that things got interesting, as the band's prog leanings enjoyed a run-out. Fluid guitar lines mixed with choral keyboards in a full-on metal furore, creating a sound that would give young guns like Muse a run for their money.

It was only a shame they didn't start as they meant to go on, as the rapturous response from the audience at these points clearly indicated they were up for the challenge as much as the band were.