All derring-do, no darkness

THEATRE The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Greenwich Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture
Who said life on the Mississippi was easy? Matthew Francis's latest literary adaptation at Greenwich (following Northanger Abbey and The Prisoner of Zenda) dallies with two conflicting accounts of Huckleberry Finn. Huck 1 is a faithful rendering of the great American novel. Huck 2 is a crowd- pleasing Christmas adventure story. Together they fight it out like the book's Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, forever taking pot-shots at one another during their arcane family feud. And, inevitably, although this will disappoint many admirers of Mark Twain's novel, it's the boyish tale of derring-do that has the greater fire power.

It doesn't look that way at the beginning, which finds Huck in the grip of a nightmare at his guardian Miss Watson's house. He's surrounded by men in Abe Lincoln hats, a reminder perhaps that this is as much a story about America as it is about two runaways.

Russell Craig's set also hints that this will be a production that engages with Twain's moral vision, his slantwise reflections on the value of civilisation. The walls of Tom's bedroom sprout at strange angles from the floor, as if he's on the raft already, at sea amid the gentility of this slave-owning society. The dwellings in his home town, St Petersburg, Missouri, are represented in miniature, little doll-houses lit from the inside like Hallowe'en lanterns. They're at once homely, sinister and all-American.

It's a tremendously suggestive, if somewhat unwieldy, design. Yet the action that follows fails to build on the resonances created in the opening minutes, largely because of the person of Huck himself - and notwithstanding a solid performance from Daniel Newman. Huck's inner conflict ought to give this story much of its tension. Should he betray his travelling companion, Miss Watson's escaped slave Jim, or should he help him find freedom, and thereby risk being sent to hell?

The novel's Huck grows towards making the right decision: his trip down the river is a moral education. But the play is so concerned to avoid alienating its audience, that it whitewashes Huck's character. Importantly, we never see the casual racism of Twain's hero, the assumptions of upbringing which lead him to declare that Jim "had an uncommon level head for a nigger" or that "it was according to the old saying, give a nigger an inch and he'll take an ell". If you don't establish that at the start, then Huck has no direction in which to develop.

When Huck faces his first big moral test - whether or not to give Jim up to bounty hunters - his doubts and fears are externalised. Figures from his past - Miss Watson, her sister, a churchman - cluster around him like good and evil angels. But far from making his predicament more concrete (which is presumably the intention), it has the effect of distancing him from any unpleasantness in the audience's eyes. It's as if we are being told: don't worry, it's not nice, sweet Huck who's having these horrid thoughts.

Despite this, it's not an unentertaining three hours. There are some fine performances - especially Clive Llewellyn's dignified Jim and Andrew Muir's Tom Sawyer, a shiny-faced spiv in the making. The comic scenes with the con men-turned-Shakespearian actors, the King and the Duke, zip by. And Francis has done some ingenious cutting and pasting on the latter part of the text, neatly moulding a hotchpotch of subplots into one coherent whole. Certainly, a darker more complex version of Huckleberry Finn still waits to be staged. But, then, perhaps it wouldn't be suitable for Christmas.

To 25 Jan. Booking: 0181-858 7755

Adrian Turpin