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DANCE / Weird, man: Judith Mackrell reviews Takarazuka at the London Coliseum

Oh, you mean it's a freak show,' said my date, as I tried to explain what Takarazuka was going to be like. In fact this all-female Japanese review is too slick and gorgeous to be that. But as you watch beautiful women impersonating male heart-throbs in order to seduce both the 'women' on stage and the crowds of Japanese women in the audience below, and as you stare at the show's surreal overload of glamour and glitz you do feel weirdly displaced. The show seems to come from another planet - one called Kitsch Heaven - even if to the performers it is sincere and serious art.

Takarazuka was established to bring Western-style theatre to Japan, and some of the show's more startling moments arise from a confusion of culture as well as of gender. The first act is like a Broadway tour of ancient Japan in which 'male' samurai warriors looking like Kate Bush serenade the cherry blossom to music you'd normally hear on a television game show. The second act is a musical comedy in which Noel Coward meets Corporate Japan.

Its beguilingly ludicrous plot takes place at a party given to celebrate the opening of Mr Carbitz's new bank vault. It stars Carbitz's daughter, Annabel, and her fiance, Ralph, a heartbreakingly handsome safe-breaker who has given up crime to run a dry-cleaning business. Out of these unlikely circumstances are wrought moments of ineffable romance. When Ralph thinks he's losing Annabel he utters lines like, 'I'm a man who once held out his arms to a dream.' When he has to force open the vault to extract a child trapped inside, he does it by means of a corkscrew and a bottle of pink champagne (don't ask how).

Takarazuka is full of such 'men' who talk like Mills & Boon and look like young gods. They have been trained in the Clark Gable school of machismo, yet their manners have been polished at finishing school and their bodies finessed in ballet class. They are bold and dominating but they will never be sweaty or crude. Most charismatic is the 'top male star', Mira Anju, with her exquisite cheekbones and gracefully louche strut. Beside her, you hardly give the 'women' a second glance. They are shy-glanced creatures who keep their place until ready to fall into their more privileged girlfriends' arms. Their behaviour is so in line with heterosexual stereotype you almost stop thinking about gender confusion (until one scene where an erotic embrace between two 'men' sends a frisson through the entire audience).

The third part of the show is sequinned song and dance - Western showbiz with a Japanese accent and Japanese technology. The lavish sets and lighting are from another century but the finale trumps them all. Forty-eight dancers with ostrich plumes sprouting from their heads fill a golden stage. Down a long staircase walks Anju in a gold lurex tuxedo and enough feathers to fly away on. Beautiful and imperious, she has the audience squirming in her hand. But when she pauses to lead the final bow the unthinkable happens. This ravishingly buccaneer girl / man puts her hand over her mouth - and giggles.

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