HANDLING BACH Greenwich Theatre, London: Theatre

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The Independent Culture
Once upon a time, there was an ex-music critic who wrote a series of plays about envy between two men. In 1979 he took his argument into the arena of music with the tale of two real-life composers. The play was a big hit and an even bigger film, winning eight Oscars including Best Picture and Best Screenplay. The film was Amadeus and the playwright was Peter Shaffer and not, alas, Paul Barz, whose strikingly similar Handling Bach is receiving its British premiere in Greenwich in a translation by David Bryer.

It must have seemed like a great idea, an imaginary meeting between the two baroque geniuses who never actually met - despite several attempts by Bach who once walked 20 miles to see Handel and failed. They were both German, both born in 1685, both went blind (despite the efforts of the same eye surgeon) yet were utterly dissimilar in terms of contemporary fame and fortune.

Hilary Tooley's intriguing programme note draws their astrological charts, suggesting that on the surface they would have had much in common "sharing strong egos, powerful desires to achieve, philosophical beliefs, charm..." She then warns us that "soon the tensions between the two men would begin to show". And lo...

The rich and famous Handel (David Henry, a dead ringer for Frankie Howerd in a powdered wig) has come to Leipzig towards the end of his life where the impoverished church cantor Bach is being made a member of the Society of Sciences. Handel inveighs against the notion, bellowing: "Music isn't a science, it's a business." Bill Stewart's bluff, blunt, north-country-toned Bach arrives for an elaborate meal and the rest of the evening is a battle of egos.

Unfortunately, where Shaffer created highly theatrical characterisations and dramatic metaphors for his quasi-philosophical musings on music, immortality and God, Barz never manages to pull off the same trick. His protagonists swing back and forth revealing professional jealousies in a debate centred around the Messiah vs. the St. Matthew Passion, but the argument, full of sound and fury thanks to the energetic cast, never takes wing. Matthew Francis, the director, uses excerpts from the composers' works (played and sung by the excellent Peter Hayward and Matthew Dixon lurking about Lez Brotherston's neat set) but Barz fails to dramatise the ideas.

Perhaps it's time to call a halt to dead composers on stage. Taking Sides examines the life of Wilhelm Furtwangler and there's even a fictional one in Burning Blue. What next? An imaginary meeting between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Peter Maxwell Davies?

n Greenwich Theatre. Booking: 0181-858 7755