Why I had to retreat from Napoleon's all-singing army

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The Independent Culture

I love a good musical. As a child growing up in the Seventies in commuter-belt country you didn't have much choice. I was a regular at Harpenden Light Operatic Society productions and its performances of South Pacific and Half a Sixpence remain in my mind as some of the most magical moments of my youth.

I love a good musical. As a child growing up in the Seventies in commuter-belt country you didn't have much choice. I was a regular at Harpenden Light Operatic Society productions and its performances of South Pacific and Half a Sixpence remain in my mind as some of the most magical moments of my youth.

So I was looking forward to seeing Napoleon. The critics had panned it ("stupefyingly dull" - the Guardian; "a corpse of a musical" - Daily Mail) but, being an unashamed populist and amateur historian, for me it seemed to offer a promising mix.

A sparsely populated auditorium - it looked little more than a third full - didn't bode well. But the rising of the curtain and a reassuring opening scene with fabulous 18th-century costumes, great wigs and brilliant voices brought back all the childhood memories. But that was am dram, this is West End.

Early promise soon faded as the scenes progressed. The lyrics (by Andrew Sabiston) are appalling in their banality, with lines made to rhyme with increasing mannerism and the music (by Timothy Williams) following with cringe-inducing predictability. Napoleon (Paul Baker) stares woodenly out to the audience as if performing in a school play.

But the real problems come with the attempt to romp through nearly 20 years of continent-changing history on a stage the size of an average back garden. One minute we see the youthful Napoleon begging to lead the army on an Austrian campaign (I had to bite my lip as I watched the poor actors trying to simulate slipping across glaciers while still singing merrily), the next thing you know he's been made Protector of France and - golly gosh - now he's Emperor. And all that before the interval.

Vast military campaigns and rioting in the streets of Paris can be conveyed well on film, but on stage a more abstract approach works best. Here everything is just too literal.

The complexities of history are certainly not ignored. We witness the corruption of Talleyrand and the convincingly comic figures of George III and his continental counterparts indignant at the trouble caused them by the Corsican upstart.

But we are also party to some excruciatingly passionless scenes of love-making between Napoleon and Josephine (Anastasia Barzee). Perhaps worst of all is the attempt at the My Fair Lady "Ascot"-style scene as ladies in white Empire Line dresses twirl around their parasols in the galleries of the Louvre. The tone is cheap and clichéd - somehow you feel like you've heard it all before.

The coronation scene, with a Notre Dame backdrop and Napoleon by now doing his best imitation of a pantomime villain as he snatches the crown, was the final straw. I retreated to the bar and - finding it empty - joined the other members of the audience who I spied creeping guiltily through the exits.

It must have cost a fortune to produce. It appears to have the marketing budget of a soft drink (witness the adverts in every newspaper and plastered along the station hoardings at - you've guessed it - Waterloo). But not even the prospect of seeing Boney thrashed by Wellington could induce me to return for the second half. Give me Harpenden Light Operatic any day.

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