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Friday, 23 March, 2001, 13:51 GMT
Sex, violence and Anna Friel
Anna Friel
Anna Friel: Role tailor-made to suit her saucy image
By BBC News' Neil Smith

Prostitution, vice and debauchery - and that's just outside the theatre.

The Almeida Theatre in Islington has a habit of introducing its clientele to unfamiliar locales.

Having staged Hamlet at the Hackney Empire and a Shakespeare double bill at a derelict film studio in Shoreditch, it has now turned a disused coach garage in King's Cross into a dramatic new performance space while its home base is being refurbished.

Anna Friel in Lulu
Anna Friel in Lulu (photo by Ivan Kyncl)
"The Cross", as it is affectionately known, has a reputation for seediness that is well deserved - despite a glossy new brochure, readily available in the foyer, that optimistically describes the area as "London's exciting and vibrant new quarter".

But if anything is guaranteed to pull in crowds, it is the chance to see actress Anna Friel - best known as Brookside's lipstick lesbian Beth Jordache - in a role tailor-made to suit her saucily provocative image.

Friel stars as Lulu, a nubile young nymphomaniac who works her way through four husbands and countless lovers (of both sexes) in Frank Wedekind's legendary opus.

The German author wrote his Lulu plays in the last decade of the 19th Century, but was forced to tone down their salacious detail in order to get them produced.

Nicholas Wright has returned to Wedekind's original version for a five-act drama that follows Lulu from decadent Germany via bohemian Paris to the back-streets of Victorian London.

Jonathan Kent's production has been dogged by everything from technical problems to an injured leading lady

Dubbed a different pet name by each of her admirers - who include a venal newspaper editor (Alan Howard), his posturing son (Oliver Milburn) and an idealistic painter (James Hillier) - Lulu is a sexual chameleon who is all things to all men.

Friel reflects this by adopting a variety of attitudes, accents and revealing costumes, making her UK stage debut nothing short of a tour de force.

She even gets to sing - though she has to fight to make herself heard over the four-piece music ensemble whose contributions quickly become intrusive.

The final act never quite reaches the tragic heights that should attend Lulu's bloody demise at the hands of Jack the Ripper

Jonathan Kent's production - which has been dogged by everything from technical problems to an injured leading lady - peaks midway through the third act, a farcical maelstrom that sees Lulu juggling three partners and killing a fourth.

But the play becomes confusing and frantic once the action shifts to Paris.

The final act - with the stage stripped bare to represent a modern-day London basement - never quite reaches the tragic heights that should attend Lulu's bloody demise at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

A large cast results in a range of acting styles, with Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege failing to hold her own against Howard's creepy seducer or Tom Georgeson's drunken parasite.

And try as they might, the players cannot overcome the spatial and acoustic challenges posed by a cavernous new venue strangely lacking in atmosphere.

But any scheme to revitalise one of the capital's most maligned corners should be applauded - and with the entire run already sold out, the Almeida must be doing something right.

Lulu runs until 12 May.

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