Essex girls and Belfast boys

Theatre - Sheridan Morley on why an Eighties musical revival fails to score

Nostalgia, as the old joke goes, isn't what it used to be. Although Tell Me on a Sunday is, in fact, barely more than 20 years old, it is curiously now a memory piece. The new version at the Gielgud Theatre is about 15 or 20 minutes longer than the original, without the all-dancing Variations, which with Tell Me formed the two acts of Song and Dance. What's new here, apart from half a dozen songs, is Denise Van Outen, in the solo star role, and Jackie Clune, who contributes some new but not especially brilliant material to pad out the Lloyd Webber-Don Black score.

The skeletal storyline concerns a woman (now from Ilford in acknowledgment of Van Outen's Essex girl image) who flies to New York and then Los Angeles in search of a suitable American lover, only to discover at some length that men are no better over there.

The lyricist Don Black is at his best and most of the Lloyd Webber score still works wonderfully. But despite updating the show to a world of Sex and the City and Frasier, the problem is still what it always has been - the absence of a story.

It was clever to call in the services of Matthew Warchus, who has worked extensively with Yasmina Reza, the author of Art. But there is also now a new problem with the set. While 20 years ago, or maybe even ten, slides projected on to a stage screen seemed the height of technology, this has been outdated by William Dudley's recent work at the National and the Royal Court. His use of holograms and video technology has changed our visual theatrical world, and therefore our expectations. Two-dimensional slides, as here, are somehow no longer enough, even if they are self-consciously arty pictures of Manhattan in full bloom.

Imagine Under Milk Wood set in present-day Belfast and you have some idea of what makes Scenes from the Big Picture, Owen McCafferty's picaresque if somewhat too-sprawling tale, so urgent. Over a single day, we meet the teeming inhabitants of a working-class area of the city where the shaky meat-packing factory is the primary employer, giving us denizens of all ages, from disaffected teenagers to elderly shopkeepers, drug-dealers and addicts, a philandering shop steward with wife and mistress, local drunks, a plant manageress worrying about a crucial contract, her husband still mourning the son murdered 15 years ago, brothers whose memories are stronger than their mutual hatred, and more.

Each character has at least two stories to tell, though none is really strong enough to be called a plot. McCafferty is big on character and personality - by the end of the evening we know these people - though he follows either too many plots or else not enough. But his ear is faultless as he takes us deep inside a Belfast where real people live and fight and drink and work and love and generally fail to live up to their own notions of themselves.

The director, Peter Gill, uses again his favourite technique of having the entire cast on stage throughout, as in his very similar production of Cardiff East at the Nat- ional some years ago. This time, he has his cast sitting in the front row, where they can conveniently change Alison Chitty's set. Gill doesn't make it easy for us - there is nothing realistic on the stage except the acting. Even the furniture is painted bright blue to emphasise its unreality, and the props are lined up at the back of the stage.

But the enormous cast rises to the occasion, each actor bringing intensity and integrity to the whole. In this entire day in Belfast, there is not a single mention of Protestant or Catholic, of politics or rhetoric. Life gets in the way. And even when the accent is impenetrable, McCafferty's intention is clear: listen, he is saying, this is not just a place of bombs and warring churches. This is Belfast and every other place as well. Look, this is us. And this is you, too.

Oklahoma! at the Peacock Theatre was joyous, exhilarating, and bursting with charm. All Roger Haines's cast at the National Youth Music Theatre are under 21. This 27-year-old company has trained dozens of today's leading players - Jude Law comes immediately to mind - and this latest batch is no less talented.

Tell Me on a Sunday is at the Gielgud Theatre, London W1 (0870 890 1105) until 26 July

Scenes from the Big Picture is at the Cottesloe, National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000) until 21 June