THEATRE / All for one man: Jeffrey Wainwright reviews The Three Musketeers at the Sheffield Crucible

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Alexandre Dumas bestrides the Pennines at present, albeit with each thigh boot pointing in a different direction. In Manchester, the Royal Exchange's The Count of Monte Cristo treats the work with elaborate earnestness, while at the Sheffield Crucible, the adaptor Willis Hall and the director Alan Cohen go for a cheerful send-up of The Three Musketeers. There is certainly more to admire at the Exchange. At the Crucible, for many, there may be more to enjoy.

For instance, there's the chance to sing the 'Marseillaise' - unless you neglected to buy a programme in which case you could fall back on the better known refrain 'Can-to-na'. Were you to be so rash, however, you would certainly be thrown out con brio by a cast so eager for audience involvement it was a surprise not to meet them again in the car park. But they are a good-humoured lot, so you would be let back in, after being shown the instruments of serious drama in the Studio theatre downstairs.

It is really a summer panto doing its level utmost to coax laughs with dreadful puns ('it's a merde, merde, merde world'), freeze blood with villainous villains including, 'a she-devil from hell', and break the scenery. Patrick O'Kane's D'Artagnan managed that the night I was there, and such is the triple- jumping vigour of his performance that it's a toss-up as to whether his understudy or the stage-carpenter has more over-time by the end of the run.

I last saw O'Kane as the retarded youth in Robin Glendinning's Donny Boy, and even in these less concentrated circumstances, it is clear, with his intense brow and raw mouth, what a powerful stage presence he is. When he mourns his poisoned Constance, he stops the show in mid-swash.

But only for a moment, for he must not only 'save his breath to cool his bouillabaisse', but get it back to stay the pace. Actually there are no rhymes like that, and the English actor's traditional skill of speaking verse and fencing at the same time is only half-examined. But what an examination: one hand, two hands, no hands, up the stairs, down the stairs, on and off the table, all the classic moves. Whatever the fate of the iambic pentameter , the swordplay is in good hands.

In the quieter moments, Sophie Goodchild as Milady De Winter, is glisteningly impressive, John Branwell is, as ever, good value, and Steve Huison contributes a court footman whose resemblance to a drooping iris is a scene- stealer. But the show lacks just this kind of inventive detail and rather indulges in caricature and parody. When we see a trouserless Porthos teeter across the stage not once but twice, we have the sense that something is being scratched in desperation.

The show has traditional aspirations and pursues them without pretensions. Nonetheless there must be more original and surprising ways in which even so familiar a work as this can be presented. It is amazing that something so fast-paced can seem so slow, something so energetic seem so tired. But the cast do have a go, and perhaps, as Chris of Northern Exposure once memorably put it: 'It's not the thing that you fling, it's the fling itself.'

'The Three Musketeers' continues at the Sheffield Crucible until 2 July (Booking: 0742 769922)

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