THEATRE / Broom for improvement: Paul Taylor reviews the 'operamusical' Which Witch at the Piccadilly Theatre

WHICH Witch: it sounds like a consumer-guide on the lines of Which? Microwave or Which? Laptop. Would they be recommending us to snap up the latest state-of-the-art model equipped with broom-phone and self-worming cat? All that I left with, I fear, was a splitting headache and the spooky suspicion that Which Witch is not so much an 'operamusical' with a 16th-century witch hunt setting as Norway's dastardly revenge on the rest of the world for the way it has been treated in the Eurovision Song Contest.

More than a couple of the numbers in Benedicte Adrian and Ingrid Bjornov's dire rock-opera score have a distinct flavour of those Norwegian entries that didn't quite make it to the top. And Jahn Teigen, who plays the Executioner, is, we learn from the programme notes, the man who scored the famous 'nul point' in the 1978 Paris finals.

Let's not be chauvinist about this, though. Making the piece a fiasco sans frontieres, Kit Hesketh-Harvey has put his sense of humour on hold and produced English lyrics that arouse a keen wish that they had been left in the language Ibsen spoke. When they attempt wit, they are flat and crude: 'A wealthy banker's bride / Can always snatch some how's your father on the side', the heroine's maids tell her nudgingly as she is about to be betrothed to a man she doesn't love. Aiming at seriousness, the lyrics succeed in causing the odd inward smile: 'Maria, quick, arrange your dress / Curtsey to his Holiness'.

But then the tone of the piece is all over the place on every level. Richard Hudson's designs don't seem to know whether they want to send the religiosity and terror out or up. In the executioner's lair, for example, there are large cages dangling from the ceiling, each containing a skeleton. A grim memento mori? No, what they reminded me of was those inscribed photos from satisfied customers you get in certain shops and hotels: 'My wife and I would just like to say that we've never been tortured or killed better anywhere. All to your credit that we won't back next year]'

It's difficult to see how director Piers Haggard could have persuaded us to take any of it seriously. The evening begins with a daft, would-be doomy glimpse of the Inquisition. Cardinal Gonzaga (Billy Hartman) sings out choice excerpts from Malleus Maleficarum ('the Hammer of Witches') and does his best to spread a castration complex around the assembled chorus of Dominicans. 'Woman wants the private parts of a man / She will strike at his manhood whenever she can,' he warns, adding that they'd better beware or they may see their privates hanging from the nearest tree. From this first scene on, the show never once looks forward.

The story centres on Maria Vittoria (Benedicte Adrian), the foster daughter of an influential Roman family who has fallen in love with Daniel (Graham Bickley), her German tutor. He reciprocates, but it's a passion he needs to keep under his mitre, as he has just been made a Catholic bishop. It all comes out; Rome is scandalised; and, still torn between his vows of celibacy and his love for Maria, Daniel takes her to Germany with him. Back home, though, they are busy countering the Reformation on a round-the-clock basis and his sister (Vivien Parry), who wanted him to be the first German Pope, tries to get rid of Maria by accusing her of casting a spell on her brother when, as a result of her own poisoning, he sinks in to a deep sleep. Hints of an incestuous possessiveness, here, though the sister's tangled emotions are never properly developed. The writers take the easier option of focusing on the cliched lovers.

There's a spectacular Black Sabbath dream sequence with witches flying over the stalls and Maria's acquaintance reappearing in kinkily distorted, blasphemous forms. And you'll be glad to hear when she's being burnt at the stake, Daniel insists on keeping her company in a sort of reverse- suttee. The show is well sung, but in all other departments, it's a clear case of 'Ding, dong Which Witch is dead'.

Which Witch continues at the Piccadilly Theatre, London W1. Box office: 071-867 1118.

(Photograph omitted)