MUSIC-THEATRE Trouble in Tahiti / A Hand of Bridge Southwark Playhouse

Click to follow
Successive producers have failed to turn Leonard Bernstein's unwieldy wonder Candide into a successful show. The score is a treasure-trove of opera pastiches, lyrical ballads, comedy numbers and ensemble set-pieces climaxing in a heartstopping chorale of triumphant reconciliation that reduces audiences to tears of happiness. The book and dramaturgy are, however, florid and deeply flawed, leaving one with the distinct impression that it is the best radio opera ever written.

Coming in at less than an hour, his first attempt at the genre, Trouble in Tahiti, is considerably more compact. Like Candide, it is an ironic take on this best of all possible worlds, in this case, suburbia. Sam and Dinah's marriage is on the rocks and throughout the course of a day we see their happy past contrasted with the troubled present. Musically, it stands between his Broadway shows and the "opera proper" writing of Candide. The first hint of this arrives at the beginning where a doo-wop trio croon sweetly of the sun kissing the little white house. Neatly dressed in Fifties suits with the clean-voiced Lucy Tuck in off-the-shoulder pink silk and evening gloves, this spot-on trio pop in and out, commenting upon the action like a homespun Greek chorus. It's a bit like having Manhattan Transfer for your next-door neighbours.

Life inside the home, however, is a lot less sunny. Sam and Dinah squabble over breakfast and Sam heads angrily for work leaving Dinah to reminisce about their youth in one of her two big numbers, "I Was Standing in a Garden". An elegantly coiffed Lori Isley Lynn is vocally firm but a little unyielding in a part which demands our sympathy. She's at her best when she relaxes her voice to sing sadly of "a quiet place", a line which recurs throughout the work. The physically imposing Cornell John has a warmer sound, and although the role stretches him a little too far in some of the more complex writing, his vocal ease lends charm to a slightly underwritten role that can easily lack real range.

The trick of the piece is the contrast between the consciously mundane sentiments counterbalanced by altogether richer music. John Jannson's scrupulous musical direction brings out every detail in the score, particularly important given that the minuscule budget only runs to (extremely well- played) piano accompaniment. Worryingly, the musical strengths point up Paul Baillie's oddly inert production, which tends to leave his leads stranded. Dinah's hilarious showstopper "What a Movie" is sung with gusto, but why does he give her so little to do and in so little light? The same applies in Samuel Barber's little jewel, A Hand of Bridge, which opens the evening. The players, particularly the bold-voiced Christopher Holt, sing with relish but placing them at separate tables drains the drama from this jazz-inflected mini-opera. Even more so than the more substantial Bernstein, the dedicated performances leave you hungry for more.

To 9 Nov. Booking: 0171-620 3494