THEATRE / A little shop of sorrows

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The Independent Culture
IT'S EASY to see why Fiddler on the Roof has lasted so well - big songs, big star, heart-warming story - and just as easy to see why the equally heart- warming but smaller-scale She Loves Me, by the same team of Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (words) has been forgotten since its first run in 1963. But as Scott Ellis's production at the Savoy proves, being less memorable isn't the same thing as being less good.

Forgettability is integral to the whole enterprise of She Loves Me. The plot, borrowed from Miklos Laszlo's play Parfumerie and also used by Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 film, The Shop Around the Corner, you wouldn't leave outside in case it blew away: Georg and Amalia (John Gordon-Sinclair and Ruthie Henshall) are feuding assistants in a Budapest parfumerie; each fails to realise that the other is the anonymous pen-friend they long to meet. When Georg stumbles on the truth, he is dismayed, then remorseful, and finally smitten; Amalia, seeing this change, senses new depths in him.

There isn't much in the way of big, stylish production numbers or tunes that you go home whistling (although there's a naggingly persistent quality to the barbershop chorus of gratitude that the staff sings to each departing customer). At times, as well, you feel that the lyrics can't have cost Sheldon Harnick too many restless nights: take the opening number, in which the staff exchange pleasantries before opening up for the day's business: 'Good morning.' / 'Good day.' / 'Isn't this a glorious day? / Have you seen such a beautiful morning?' / 'Never' - and so on, for some time.

But this sense of nothing special is the point of the show. The homespun ordinariness of the protagonists is insisted on - we're given to understand that both are some way past the flush of youth, and neither is especially attractive (in the cafe where Amalia awaits in vain the big date with her unseen pen- friend, the headwaiter consoles her: 'You're a nice presentable girl - not a beauty contest-winner, but you should see some of the others'). The fluffy story- line gains plausibility and emotional weight from the accumulation of mundane detail. It is also skilfully counterpointed by the sadder story of store-owner Mr Maraczek's marriage. Marazcek's solo number from the first half, 'Days Gone By', is a nostalgic celebration of his own courtship; after the interval it is reprised as a plain lament. Sheldon and Harnick allow him to sing just a phrase, quite enough to show the depths of his disillusionment.

There are witty moments - Ilona, the girl who specialises in not being taken home to meet men's mothers, recounts a meeting with her ideal man, an optometrist who visits libraries; Kodaly, the local cad, warbles a swaggering, sarcastic farewell to the store - both superbly performed, by Tracie Bennett and Gerard Casey. But the show works cumulatively, almost by stealth. At the end of the first half, I thought I was sitting through an amiable sort of nothing; by the end of the second, without really noticing, I was charmed and touched. There are offputting things - the colour-scheme is a rather unpleasant melange of purples, pinks and reds, and both Gordon-Sinclair and Henshall are a degree too cute, and know just how cute they are. All the same, it's hard to imagine how you could not get at least a sneaking pleasure from the evening.

The pleasures of The Canterbury Tales are anything but sneaking - they clump straight up to you in heavy boots and hit you in the face again and again. At the Garrick, Brian Glover's Miller, balding, tubby, foul- mouthed and with a Barnsley accent, sets the tone: this is not so much Chaucer the father of English poetry as Chaucer the father of the English rugby song.

Michael Bogdanov's 20- year-old adaptation, revived by Peter James, turns the theatre into a vicarage lawn: the vicar - Nicholas Lumley, continually jiggling with nervous joviality - is presenting a story-telling competition in honour of Chaucer, with tales presented by local personalities David Pardoner, Kate Franklin, Adrian Reeve . . . you get the idea. But the vicar's well-meaning attempts to make this a respectable event, in keeping with his attitude of deferential incomprehension towards Chaucer, are constantly disrupted by Brian Miller, the local dustman, who's only interested in slapstick, double entendres and calling a spade a spade.

Naturally, the vicar comes off worse from the argument, reduced to petty, bowdlerising tantrums - when someone objects, 'But vicar, Chaucer uses the word 'fart',' he can only fume impotently: 'Not on the vicarage lawn he doesn't' But although the laughs are all against the vicar, you can see his point of view: if Chaucer really were just an endless stream of bawdy jokes denuded of sentiment and irony, the alternative offered here to literary embalming, what would be the point of him? I mean, you can get Benny Hill on video.

This self-consciously philistine attitude to literature is the principal objection to these Canterbury Tales. But the air of tacky amateurism makes it easy to forgive the excesses, and even lends it an endearingly English air. Take, for example, Eileen Dunwoodie's chicken- suited chorus-girl dance in the Nun's Priest's Tale. If this were an American show, it would surely be genuinely sexy, the kicks really high, the buttock- rolling and hip-wiggling keeping strict time with the music; but it wouldn't be half as funny. These Tales skim along the edge of sheer awfulness, challenging you to throw away your intellectual scruples; and it mostly works, damn it.

When Sam Mendes's production of The Tempest opened in Stratford last year, Irving Wardle gave it only qualified approval, adding that he hoped for a transformation when it moved to the Barbican. It has now moved, and the transformation hasn't happened. There have been changes - notably, Simon Russell Beale's icy, impassive Ariel no longer marks his liberation by spitting in Prospero's face. But Alec McCowen's tetchy Prospero is still dispiritingly low-key, and the production is stuffed too full of ideas - not that they are bad ideas, but there are too many of them, making you suspect that Mendes doesn't quite know what he thinks of the play. Like most tempests, this one only offers brief, thrilling flashes of illumination.

'She Loves Me', Savoy, 071-836 8888. 'The Canterbury Tales', Garrick, 071-494 5085. 'The Tempest', Barbican, 071-638 8891.

Irving Wardle is on holiday.

(Photograph omitted)