Acorn Antiques, Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London

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The Independent Culture

Soap stars on stage? That usually means Christmas and the kind of pantomime you'd travel to Lapland with Santa to avoid. But here's a stage full of sudsy VIPs, and it's only February, and the show is just about the hottest ticket in the West End. What's going on?

Soap stars on stage? That usually means Christmas and the kind of pantomime you'd travel to Lapland with Santa to avoid. But here's a stage full of sudsy VIPs, and it's only February, and the show is just about the hottest ticket in the West End. What's going on?

The twist, of course, is that they are the stars of Victoria Wood's spoof soap, Acorn Antiques. There are those of us who, in the mid-Eighties, measured out our lives by the weekly instalments of this sublime send-up. We still pat our bosoms and say: "Mrs Overall, c'est moi." But you wouldn't want The Office on ice, or a trapeze version of Fawlty Towers. And sometimes, as Mrs O would doubtless phrase it, a huge West End musical flop is just God's way of telling you not to be such a greedy bugger.

And the verdict? Put it this way; I haven't laughed as helplessly since the day I heard that Bernadette had closed at the Dominion. It's the supreme cheek of the endeavour that will irritate some and exhilarate the rest of us. On normal dramatic grounds, the show makes no sense at all. You just have to accept that you have entered a weird parallel universe where perfectly potty things happen.

Axed because of a head-to-head ratings battle with Celebrity Breast Enlargements That Went Wrong, the soap has, in the first half, been hijacked by a pretentious polytechnic-style theatre director (Neil Morrissey) who wants to use it as a vehicle for agit-prop. Then the actress who plays Mrs O wins the lottery. She uses the money to finance a West End musical version of the soap in which the existence of the antiques emporium is endangered by the might of a global coffee chain.

We're sucked into a barmy world where "the smell of a mature woman's macaroons" can have a decisive effect, and where Julie Walters's hilarious Mrs O can achieve apotheosis by getting in a chairlift to paradise, her pinafore turned quite golden and Bob Fosse-like with gladness.

It's also a world where the joke about creaky TV conventions is transferred, with majestic indifference to reason, to the stage. The habits of Crossroads collide with those of A Chorus Line and Les Mis. It is a bit self-indulgent and less would be more, but Walters gives the show heart as well as hilarity. What needs to be said about her is that she is undoubtedly a great actress. Consider the miracle of it: she makes you care about a completely non-existent personage.

There's a blissful performance from Celia Imrie, whose pursed and reproving Miss Babs still moves around as though she has a theodolite up her bum. The director, Trevor Nunn, pushes the ingredients of this pedigree dog's dinner around the plate with sass and flair. The show gets away with it, gloriously. Still aching with laughter, I recommend it.

To 12 March (020-7930 8800). A version of this review has already appeared in some editions of the paper

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