42nd Street, Festival Theatre, Chichester<br/>The Comedy of Errors, Regent's Park, London

A Thirties musical raises the spirits, but Shakespeare transposed to the Forties veers into panto
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The Independent Culture

Hopeful hoofers auditioning for the show within a show in 42nd Street face a stark choice: get the job or starve. They may even get the job and starve, on $32 a week.

Dazzled by the razzmatazz of the spectacular first act closer, "We're in the Money", it's easy to forget that the number opens with urchins scrabbling at a solitary dime in the street. The show's producer has lost his fortune in the Wall Street crash, unemployment is rife, and the splash headlines over the action speak of breadlines and soup kitchens. "We're in the Money"? – in your dreams.

Corn is the most tradable commodity in 42nd Street, notably showbiz clichés of the "you're going out a youngster but you've got to come back a star" variety. Fittingly, the head corn-broker is former youngster-turned-star Tim Flavin, playing the broken producer Julian Marsh, and slapping down one grand statement after another, like a gambler with a hand of royal cards. With Marsh's leading lady (Kathryn Evans) out of action, everything rests on the new girl, Peggy Sawyer (Lauren Hall). As Hall is distinctly outsung by Evans, and every dancer on stage is brilliant, Marsh's declaration that "she's the best dancer in the line" wrongfoots us momentarily. "No she's not! Look at Annie!" it is tempting to shout back, for who can take their eyes off Lisa Donmall as Peggy's mate?

There's no curtain to go up at Chichester Festival Theatre, which poses a problem for a show famous for its row upon row of tap-dancing feet beneath the slowly rising tabs, a moment of magic. And a stage of this size can't quite run to Marsh's 25 dancers, but that makes every precious soul in this hard-working chorus a star in their own right. The other dividend is the frequent if not constant sight of the belting swing band behind the action, directed by Julian Kelly with economy and precision. They lob hit after hit: "Go Into Your Dance", "You're Getting to be a Habit with Me", the Ziegfeld-style "Dames", "Lullaby of Broadway", and the title number with its hot-blooded crime-of-passion sequence.

In between times, a little clunking dialogue goes a long way, and Paul Kerryson's nimble production nips and tucks this pretty smartly. Design by Ashley Martin-Davis and lighting by Chris Ellis contrive to put a quart into a pint pot, but the laurels go to the chorus, in their desirable costumes by George Souglides. They sing – with impeccable diction – dance and beam for all they are worth, which is a lot, Alan Burkitt as Andy a particular joy.

First produced in the year in which it is set, 1933, four years after the crash, 42nd Street joined a run of eye-popping musicals which numbed the pain. Would that the modern financial hiccup yielded such vehicles for glee. "'Musical comedy'," stately Flavin intones in one of his sonorous pep talks. "The two most beautiful words in the English language." They sure beat "bank bail-out".

At Regent's Park, director Philip Franks has transported The Comedy of Errors to 1940s Casablanca, but not so as you'd notice, what with a huge hoarding saying Welcome to Ephesus, not a sniff of a world at war, and nothing of the yellow streak that runs along Rick's Bar. This is more Carry On in the Kasbah, a heavyweight slapstick that relies, panto-style, on Ali Baba baskets to hide in and someone done up as a gorilla, that last refuge of the desperate in search of an easy laugh.

As Antipholus of Syracuse, Daniel Weyman comes from the school of Bertie Wooster haplessness, cheerfully going along with situations quite beyond his comprehension, washed up in the home town of his identical twin, a tetchy and indignant Daniel Llewelyn-Williams, and smitten by the very droll Sophie Roberts as his supposed sister-in-law Luciana. She has some tiptop business with a flipper, and the men's identical servants, the two Dromios (Joseph Kloska and Josh Cohen) are highly entertaining, but everyone has to work hard to keep the show afloat, because the set designed on an operatic scale by Gid-eon Davey magnifies what should be nifty little double-takes into exhausting, silent-movie comedy capers.

Moments of tenderness are trampled in the rush, despite the heroic efforts of Christopher Ravenscroft as dignified Egeon. And while the moochy dance band music is pleasing, with a couple of sassy numbers from Anna-Jane Casey thrown into the mix, it strips away the pace of this breathless farce. For a lesson in how music can propel the action rather than hold it up, see Women Beware Women at the National, and gulp in awe.

All the same, The Comedy of Errors is indestructible. And it is perfectly pleasant sitting under a summer sky, hearing Shakespeare's wittiest lines echoing back through the centuries, knowing that they will be dipping and darting like the swifts, long after the moths have done for the gorilla suit.

'42nd Street' to 28 Aug (01243 781312); 'The Comedy of Errors' to 31 Jul (0844 826 4242).

Next Week:

Post-Jerusalem, Kate Bassett sees Mark Rylance's next trick in a revival of the Nineties comedy, La Bête

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