Not tonight, Josephine, for this hammy hokum

Napoleon | Shaftesbury Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture

You've heard of people who have a Napoleon complex, in the same way some folk think they are Elvis Presley or Cleopatra?

You've heard of people who have a Napoleon complex, in the same way some folk think they are Elvis Presley or Cleopatra?

Well, Napoleon at the Shaftesbury Theatre has a Napoleon complex too. It thinks it is a wonderfully composed, sweeping musical about Corsica's number-one export. It fondly imagines it will bind together a mass audience and the culterati who are catered for, in this neck of the woods, by Prokofiev's operatic version of War and Peace.

The show, with lyrics by Andrew Sabiston and music by Timothy Williams, has even roped in a big-name director, Francesca Gambello, well known for a mission to bridge the brow levels.

In fact, Napoleon is severely deluded and in urgent need of counselling. Last night's opening presented us with two and three-quarter hours of hammy historical hokum, diversified by a couple of moments that served to indicate what might have been if anyone around had had any taste. The ad campaign for the piece highlights a quote from its hero to his first wife, Josephine: "For you I would tear the world apart!" To which, if she had any gumption, Anastasia Barzee's squeaky-clean Josephine would have replied: "Honey, if you really loved me you would tear up this script and shove all the sheet music in the shredder while you are about it."

This truly is a production where you come out humming the almost intimidatingly slick and fluent design. Monitored by David Burke's Machiavellian Talleyrand, the show takes us through the familiar arc of Napoleon's career, from nobody to idealist, from the emperor who has blurred the distinction between serving Mankind and serving his own megalomania to the returned exile who meets more than one Waterloo. The authors try to give the material some shape by setting up several sets of contrasts, such as that between Napoleon (plucky Paul Baker) and his incorruptible brother Lucien (Nigel Richards), or that between Napoleon's love of Josephine and his adoration of the idea of la France.

To achieve real drama from these tensions you would have to have music that can be in two or minds at once but Williams' talentless score finds it hard to be in one mind at a time, veering between bludgeoning synthetic urgency and tripping, witlessly "comic" patter numbers. The lyrics are so dire I found myself whiling away the time thinking up alternatives: "Napoleon brandy/Made Napoleon randy/Causing a sensation/At his coronation."

What you are left with is the impressive look of the thing, but man cannot live by sets alone.

Should we go to see Napoleon? Not tonight, Josephine.

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