Man in the Iron Mask is forced to quit the stage shame-faced after two nights

Unfortunately for the producers of a West End musical version of the swashbuckling French historical drama, the critics hated it and the action - what there was of it - has been halted.

Just two days after its premiere at the Duchess Theatre gave rise to some of the most scathing reviews of recent times, it was announced that Behind the Iron Mask was to close.

In a statement, the producers sought to blame the fierce trading conditions in London's theatreland, despite figures on the same day showing that attendances were up on last year.

"The current state of the West End has meant that many shows are discounting to keep running. It has been difficult for a new musical to sustain sufficient audience levels and meet its running costs," they said.

However, the real reason for its sudden end, apart from the show itself, were the critics.

Behind the Iron Mask sought to retell the story of the mysterious masked aristocrat who is ensconced in a prison cell with the best of everything the 17th century could muster, except for human companionship. Until the arrival of a buxom Gypsy, that is, played by the show's star, the Prince of Wales's former favourite singer, Three Degree turned I'm A Celebrity contestant, Sheila Ferguson.

She led a cast that, according to one critic, performed "as if they have been on a prolonged Mogadon bender". According to The Daily Telegraph, despite the display of cleavage, Ferguson played the role of the Gypsy temptress "like a roguish suburban matron who has been overdoing the Babycham."

Robert Fardell re-created the eponymous hero behind what appeared to be a "battered saucepan screwed to his head". Another view, this time from The Independent, was that the famous headwear looked rather more like "a cross between Hannibal Lecter and a metalwork-class disaster".

The Daily Express concluded that at the heart of the show's failure was that "a man in an iron mask is simply not best placed or best voiced to sing for more than two hours through, as here, some of the most leaden lyrics ever devised".

As for the jailer, played by Mark McKerracher, his accent veered "between Dutch and Danish". His performance "suggests he would rather be anywhere than in this pile of ordure - a sentiment I suspect with which we can all concur," said the Telegraph.

But at the heart of any musical - even one described as cobbled together from the unwanted parts from Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables - is the music. And John Robinson's tunes come in for their fair share of abuse. "It [the music] would not bother you were it being piped into a lift, but his lyrics would," observed The Guardian.

One exchange between the Gypsy and the masked hero sums up the way the producers may now be feeling about the whole thing: "Why do you wear the iron mask?/Don't ask!/What is your name?/I'm insane!"

The last performance will be on 20 August.

What the critics said

"It is so bad that it is merely unendurable relentlessly, agonisingly third rate" - Daily Telegraph

"To suggest that 'Behind The Iron Mask' is terrible doesn't do justice to its relentless awfulness" - Daily Express

"Anyone who pays £43.50 for a ticket to this embarrassment deserves to be locked up for a very long time" - Evening Standard

"I would quite happily have volunteered for death myself to help speed things up" - The Guardian

"...exerts about as much romantic fascination as a biscuit tin with a jammed lid" - The Independent

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