All Cliff, no edge

MUSICAL Summer Holiday Labatt's Apollo, Hammersmith, London
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The Independent Culture
You will be thrilled to learn that I'm already in negotiation with several publishers for my fascinating volume on the spectacularly overlooked cultural phenomenon of "Buses and the Cinema". Long before cute Keanu Reeves saved passengers in Speed, fogbound Frankie Howerd was doing likewise in The Runaway Bus (I kid you not). The esteemed On the Buses trilogy aside (yes, they really did make three), Britain's great contribution to the genre is Summer Holiday, inescapably the finest film musical ever set aboard a London double-decker bus.

Summer Holiday was the innocently sung, sunny story of four teenage bus mechanics, who spend the summer driving around Europe with some girls, having fun. Nobody would have paid the slightest attention but for the fact that, alongside Una Stubbs sporting a fetching pair of peddle-pushers, stood Cliff Richard.

It may be hard to believe, but in those days, the recently ennobled famous Christian, star of Heathcliff and friend of Sue Barker, was a vaguely dangerous presence at the forefront of British rock 'n' roll. He shuddered like Presley, lived at the top of the charts and was known to quiff his hair and curl his lip. These were, however, fundamentally innocent times, the final moments before the Beatles and the Stones when boys turned bad. Given the success of the Sixties revival, turning his most famous vehicle into a stage show was not so much clever as inevitable, but who could capture Cliff's freshmint taste?

Four years ago, somebody smart took a long, hard look at the media concept that was Phillip Schofield and thought about lightning and striking twice. Thus it was that TV presenter and teen idol Darren Day ended up replacing him, grinning and gambling about in Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. With his ready smile and ready-made audience, Essex-boy Darren has been switching between TV stardom and musicals ever since. Making good by being good-looking and good... well, nice at least. Summer Holiday? Come on down.

On stage, this turns out not to be so much a musical as a bunch of songs with a storyline attached. It's a Take That concert with more set and less screaming. There's even a boys' underwear moment. Elsewhere, our heroes wear shining white vests, tight trousers and those daft headset microphones which allow them to leap around to Quinny Sacks's choreography - and make them look like out-of-work receptionists. The girls have a penchant for turquoise and polka-dots and bounce around embodying the British version of peachy-keen while Clare Buckfield, looking like a runner- up in a Sally Thomsett-lookalike competition with Karen Carpenter's accent, is amusingly boisterous as the secret love-interest. Thank God for comedy moments from Ross King and Hilary O'Neil. She doesn't exactly steal from Joanna Lumley in Ab Fab as commit grand larceny.

Blond, bland Darren doesn't really bother to create a character, he just wanders around looking and sounding uncannily like Cliff down to the loping vocal inflections and unthreatening presence. He breaks the mood to flirt overtly with his fans (suspension of disbelief? I think not), but everyone laps it up. It's like being at a Cliff concert minus the star and nobody minding. The secret of the show's success? Simple. Director / designer Ultz knows it may be about a bunch of guys on holiday, but it ain't On the Town and he just grins and gets on with it. At the end, they all sing "On the Beach" and you realise it's all one giant BBC Seaside Special. Ultz's unpretentious, non-stop production is bright and brash, from the lighting (more Surprise Pink than Barbara Cartland's boudoir) to the mood which rarely strays from happy. As the audience leapt up to join in the finale, it seemed they were happy too. To 20 Sept. Booking: 0171-416 6080

David Benedict