Afterlife, National Theatre: Lyttelton, London

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The Independent Culture

Afterlife is Michael Frayn's third National Theatre play in succession to spring from a real historical situation. The big difference is that Copenhagen and Democracy are complex masterpieces, whereas Afterlife – premiered now in Michael Blakemore's handsomely staged but perforce hollow production in the Lyttelton – is a disappointing dud.

Frayn has seized on the fascinating subject of Max Reinhardt, the great Austrian-Jewish impresario, who rose from the slums of Vienna and reinvented himself as one of the greatest directors of the first half of the 20th century. He championed the idea of intimate studio work and flaunted his talents as a showman in such colossal ventures as The Miracle at Olympia, in which a vast cast of 2,000 played to an audience 10 times the size.

The trouble with Afterlife is its central constricting conceit. It returns, with nagging persistence, to the Salzburg Festival and Reinhardt's annual outdoor staging of Everyman, an adaptation by Hoffmanstahl of the medieval morality play. With a wearisome repetitiveness, Frayn labours the parallels between the spendthrift Reinhardt and the emblematic protagonist, dissolving the boundaries between the play-within-the-play and the outer drama where his real-life characters often break into a doggerel pastiche of Everyman's rhyming couplets.

Roger Allam delivers a valiant performance as the driven, self-centred impresario. But his efforts are undermined by the dogged predictability of the outcome and the clichéd characterisation.

Copenhagen applied Heisenberg's own Uncertainty Principle to the physicist's mysterious 1941 visit to his friend and mentor, Niels Bohr. Democracy teased out the affinities between West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, and the East German spy who caused his downfall so that their internal contradictions became a symbol not just for Cold War ideological division but of the split nature of democracy itself. Afterlife never achieves anything like that degree of degree of metaphoric power. It reminds you that Frayn, who wrote the sublimely funny Noises Off, is the same man who perpetrated the mirth-free stinker, Look Look.

In rep to 16 August (020-7452 3000); a version of this review has already appeared in some editions of the paper