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FLOYD COLLINS BRIDEWELL THEATRE LONDON

"FORGIVE ME for turning you into a story," cries Skeets, the newspaper man. Happily, our hero does indeed forgive him. At first sight, Adam Guettel and Tina Landau might also seem to need forgiveness for daring to turn the true story of Floyd Collins, who died after being trapped in a cave 150 feet below ground, into a musical. Not a bit of it. At one point, Floyd's sister Nellie (a tensely passionate Anna Francolini) sings about following diamonds. Well, Floyd Collins sparkles like a rare jewel amidst the gloom of most recent blockbuster musicals.

Guettel and Landau's recipe is salted with a bitter portrait of the sensation- seeking media carnival which descended like vultures on Cave City, Kentucky in 1925. Yet surprisingly, their prevailing mode for this tragedy is of innocence and hope. Guettel's master-stroke is his creation of a musical vernacular, his music dramatising his idiomatic lyrics so that the two are welded together with astonishing assurance and grace. You hear it in the long-spun melodic lines which gather emotion as they curve and dip and rise up again.

The score has the authentic twang of country music, but without the sentimentality. The sweetly plaintive harmonies shimmer in Bruce Coughlin's superb orchestrations, which run to a nostalgic harmonica and a perky banjo within a heartfelt string sound rooted by double-bass.

Landau provides a strong dramatic spine but her characterisation of some of the smaller roles is patchy, a problem compounded by Clive Paget's production, which often leaves the performers stranded. In the dialogue scenes, you can tell that characters have been worked on individually, but the dynamic between them is often missing. Dramatic through-lines keep getting lost, and the pace sags.

The awkwardness of some of the staging also means that the production misses a trick in the ensemble number for the heartless reporters phoning in their copy to every newspaper from the Tallahassee Democrat to the Walla Walla Bugle. It's funny and snappy - "You ready for the lowdown, The real straight poop?/ Here comes the mother load scoop!" - but you long for a choreographer to come in and raise the roof with it.

Yet whenever the music really takes over, particularly in the spine-tingling duets, the show takes wing, thanks to the outstanding lead performances.

Craig Purnell as Homer, Floyd's brother, seizes every opportunity, attacking complex rhythms with relish and utter conviction. He uses music to achieve dramatic effects, not just to sound good, which he manifestly does. The same is true of Nigel Richards, who captures both Floyd's burly bravado and his fatal naivety from the tremendously demanding opening number onwards. It's impossible not to share his joy as he discovers the cave he believes will make his fortune. As his powerful, thrilling voice opens out at the top it raises the hair on the back of your neck. "Remarkable... is this remarkable enough?" sing the newspaper men. Yessir, it sure is.

To 31 July (0171-936 3456)

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