THEATRE / A fan with a big club: Paul Taylor toughs it out at the stage adaptation of Misery

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'I CAN'T suture, there's no time,' yells the hulking lady, waving a propane torch, to the worried-looking bedbound man who's slowly recovering from a car crash. 'Got to cauterise.' After donning rubber gloves, she raises an axe over one of his legs, only to let it sag at the critical moment: 'Oh, for heaven's sake, Paul, I'm a trained nurse]' This bawled in the tone of someone rebuking a pesky child for making a fuss about nothing. Then with a massive swing of the weapon, she treats her terrified patient to a DIY amputation. Clearly, anyone who goes to Misery in the hope of picking up helpful hints on the care of convalescents is in for a bit of disappointment.

Just opened at the Criterion, Simon Moore's stage version of the Stephen King horror novel spares us the thumb-severing and the cop whose face gets a more than close shave from a lawnmower. But since it retains (among other things) the hero's being forced to drink filthy water from a mop bucket and his having a bleeding half-dead rat in a trap dropped on to his crotch, I, for one, am not complaining. About that at any rate: there are other areas in which this theatre treatment is rather less adequate.

Already brought to the screen in William Goldman's clever movie adaptation, King's story chronicles the nightmarish ordeal of Paul Sheldon, a bestselling romantic novelist held hostage by his psychotic number one fan after she has rescued him from his crashed car. Like Sheherazade, he has to spin a story to save his life. Indeed, at the violent insistence of his deranged captor, he is compelled to resurrect and write about Misery, the killed-off heroine of a successful series of his novels. The words flow, but then Annie could frighten an airport schlockbuster out of E M Forster. Annie orders Paul to barbecue the manuscript of the higher-brow novel he had just completed before the crash.

Moore's two-handed play puts the frighteners on you in a broad, giggly sort of way, but it doesn't have the sly, purposeful humour of the book or movie. There's nothing to match, say, the grim hilarity of Annie's announcement in the film that her musical god is Liberace (not exactly an ego- booster, this, to her literary god, Paul) and then having the pianist's splashing tinklings and unctuous talk as wry background noise (the Moonlight Sonata during the amputation episode). The tensest scenes of the play are those where Paul ventures out of his room looking for ways to escape when Annie is briefly out, wheeling his way through Patrick Connellan's creepy set which revolves to show us further rooms that look like segments of a huge haunted cake. As Annie alternates between the flattery and battery of her hero, Sharon Gless (of Cagney & Lacey fame) hops with unnerving credibility round a medley of moods: googly-eyed maternal adoration, galumphing bashfulness, psychotic rage and eerie perplexed vacuity. Bill Paterson brings out what's droll in Paul's desperate, drugged plight without diminishing the desperation.

But themes of the story have been mutilated along with the hero (in particular, what the ordeal does to Paul's self-image and aspirations as a novelist) and the framing scenes of him receiving awards don't clarify them. Ironically, too, given that cheating in a narrative is what Annie most deplores, there's a terrible fudging botch-up of the climax. Even more ironically, given the subject of the play, there's an ad in the programme for the Sharon Gless Fan Club. It's a bit like starring in a play about theft and listing all your credit card numbers.

Continues at The Criterion (071 839 4488).

(Photograph omitted)