Live On the Twentieth Century The Bridewell, London

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The Independent Culture
Hands up those of you who remember musical comedy. These days, the musical takes itself terrifyingly seriously. The life of Christ, the fall of Saigon, religious wars in 16th-century France ... heck, those of you who were quick off the mark might even have caught the bombing of Nagasaki in Out of the Blue. You could be forgiven for thinking musicals were things you laughed at rather than with.

Not in the case of Comden and Green. Their books and lyrics for such masterpieces as On the Town, The Band Wagon, and, best of all, Singin' in the Rain are seriously funny. Sophisticated, witty and distinctively urban, their fingerprints are all over On the Twentieth Century, their 1978 show - based on a comedy by Hecht and MacArthur, and a Carole Lombard screwball movie - which now pops up in a rare revival.

Numerous productions of Sweeney Todd have shown that sometimes the best things come in small packages, but set all over a luxury train (and a theatre for the odd lavish production number) On the Twentieth Century really needs a sense of scale. The original set won awards not only for its stunning versatility, but for its dramatic effect on the action, assuming a character in its own right. Neatly painted rostra and mimed doors simply cannot compete. The Bridewell has had notable successes producing huge musicals on minute budgets, but this one makes impossible demands. Almost.

The wonderfully tight plot bridges comedy and farce as maniacal theatre director Oscar Jaffee (a moustachioed Michael N Harbour sounding like Robert Preston in Frasier Crane's body) plots to lure his former protegee Lily Garland back to Broadway in a play about the tragedy of Mary Magdalene.

Josephine Gordon has a whale of a time as the mad religious philanthropist Letitia Primrose, looking like the Queen Mother having an argument with a bunch of wistaria after one too many gins, singing of "dirty-doings going on" and popping up all over the place in the production's highpoint, the chase number, "She's a Nut".

Kathryn Evans is a knockout as Lily, reducing everyone around her to quivering wrecks with a scorcher of a voice. Good thing too. Cy Coleman's grand, pastiche Keystone Cops-meets-operetta score is an underrated marvel, making delicious dramatic and comic points with invention and flair. The staging and choreography are unimaginative but Carol Metcalfe's cast have inexhaustible energy and everything bowls along thanks to strong musical direction from Mark W Dorrell.

They just don't make brash, backstabbing stuff like this any more. More's the pity.

n To 7 Sept (0171-936 3456)

DAVID BENEDICT

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