Fashion victim

THEATRE: Lady in the Dark; Lyttleton, RNT, London
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The Independent Culture
When Barbra Streisand structured the first half of her Wembley concerts round a series of chats with her various analysts, it was the embarrassing predictability of the device - especially the climactic idea that she'd had to go through several hundred hours of therapy in order to sing "On a Clear Day" and "Really Mean It" - that had you groping for the sickbag. Because these days shrinks and showbiz go together like cabbages and kings, it may be all too easy to underrate the novelty for the first audiences of Lady in the Dark, the 1941 Weill/ Gershwin musical play that introduced the general Broadway public to psychoanalytic thinking.

I wish I could say that some of that original daring comes across in the belated London premiere of this work, directed now by Francesca Zambello in the Lyttelton. But the piece turns out not to have worn well and this obstinately unthrilling production does it few favours. The piece may be groundbreaking structurally - virtually all the songs are delivered within the dream sequences that the heroine is describing to her analyst - but there's no corresponding boldness in the way it handles social values.

The woman having the crack-up is Liza Elliott, the hotshot editor of a leading fashion magazine. In this role, Maria Friedman is badly miscast. She's too sweet, concessive-looking and breathy to project the drive, authority and magnetism that have got this business-suited woman to the top. It's true that in Sondheim's Passion, Friedman conveyed power, but it was the potency of an implacably loving masochism. Here you need a stronger sense of the enamelled armour Liza has built around herself. For if the character in Passion was straightforwardly ugly, in Lady in the Dark, the heroine is found to be compensating for the fact that she was thought unattractive by her parents as a child. It's a discovery that allows the show to employ psychoanalysis to endorse traditional roles. Liza's success has nothing to do with trying to compete on equal terms with men, we deduce from the shrink, rather it's the refusal to risk being hurt by competing with other women. So of the three complete ciphers who want to marry her, she ends up choosing the one who also wants her job.

There are pleasures to be derived from the evening. Perfect in idiom, Charlotte Cornwall is a joy as Liza's ruefully wise-cracking, seen-it- all older colleague on the magazine, and James Dreyfus, as a camply fraught photographer, goes to the end of his tether and well beyond in great clowning style. But, located in a world of triangulated abstraction in Adrianne Lobel's Feininger-influenced settings, the fantasy sequences (the "Wedding Dream" and the "Circus Dream", etc) don't have a sufficiently comic or unnerving edge. And, as delivered here, two of the show's three most celebrated numbers fall somewhat flat. Dreyfus hasn't the clarity of articulation to pull off that potty, high-speed litany of the names of 49 composers in "Tschaikowsky" and, though the audience cheered her to the echo at the end of it, Friedman times the innuendo in "The Saga of Jenny" as though for slow-witted foreigners.

The show feels at once pioneering in form and passe in message and there are times when, in the words of one of Ira Gershwin's lyrics, the politically correct will just have to "Lohengrin and bear it".

Booking: 0171-928 2252 Paul Taylor

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