Arts: Tell me it's not true

David Soul should be booked for his part in `Blood Brothers'. By David Benedict

For fear of legal reprisals, I shall not name the member of senior management at one of our foremost opera houses who, when asked, immediately sang the theme tune to Starsky and Hutch, complete with Isaac Hayes-esque electric guitar impersonation. For those old enough to remember, Saturday nights were blonde, cool David Soul and frisky Paul Michael Glaser doing for the wrap-around cardigan what Emma Peel had done for black leather.

Peel, of course, was played by Diana Rigg, now an altogether different type of dame and currently starring in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Last year, we were promised David Soul going legit opposite Hannah Gordon in Henry James's The Aspern Papers. Alas, this spectacularly unlikely doubleact collapsed prior to opening but he's here at last in Willy Russell's suprisingly tenacious Blood Brothers.

Bolstering this show by inserting stars is nothing new. Kiki Dee, Petula Clark, David, Shaun Cassidy and even Carole King have boosted box-office for the first Greek-tragedy-goes-scouse musical but all of the above took the leading roles in this tough, heartfelt story of a mother who loses her sons. Hiring a name to play the marginal role of the narrator is like trying to persuade a child that the best thing about a surprise parcel is the string.

Throwing the focus away from the central trio does the show no favours. The rhyming couplets of the doom-laden plot narration are the least interesting component of the piece and anyone in their right mind would do everything to shift the audience's attention away from its portentousness. Soul glowers about in an ill-fitting version of a would-be smartly-cut five- button black suit plus shoes which probably cost more than the rest of the costume budget put together. This gritty show was never meant to be the last word in theatrical sophistication and the last thing it needs is unnecessary gloss, but the No Expense Spent ethos yields disgracefully shabby results.

The rest of the cast work hard to divert you, belting out the songs and playing the class warfare and heart-on-sleeve sentiment for all they're worth. Siobhan McCarthy is suitably full-throated as the struggling mother, Stephen Palfreman seizes working-class Mickey with both hands and Jan Graveson wrings pathos and every last laugh as the girlfriend caught between hope and despair.

But Soul? His accent would not disgrace a Brigadoon revival and the singing is adequate but this is a fan event. Of course, he knows all about the plot's dealing's with fate, superstition and the devil - he sold his soul to star in the TV devil-drama Salem's Lot. And then there were the singles... All together: "Don't Give Up on the Day Job..."

To 15 Feb, Phoenix Theatre, London, WC2. Booking: 0171-369 1733

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