All's Well That Ends Well, Gielgud Theatre London

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The Independent Culture

It is Dame Judi Dench's face that glowers, alone, from the posters, but if there were any justice in this wicked world, Guy Henry's would be beside it - or rather, given his character of Parolles, slightly behind, rolling his eyes and pointing an ironic finger.

Dench, in the small part of the Countess of Rousillon, shows that the beauty of the verse need not be compromised by a natural delivery. She also provides a firm centre of morality and compassion at the heart of the tricksy plot. But Henry, in the more substantial role of the hero's scapegrace friend, gallops off with the show - sometimes literally, as he capers not just to exhibit his high spirits but to mock the dourness of the courtiers and captains.

In his opening duel of wits with the virtuous Helena, though - which, with typical disengagement, he plays to her back or the air - he soberly folds his arms and declares, to clinch his argument: "Virginity breeds mites".

With its sumptuous-but-sober design and actors in 17th-century dress (dark grey, with flashes of gold and copper), this All's Well looks great. It sounds, however, only quite good - too many male actors speak in a generic Shakespearean rumble. But Gregory Doran's beautifully paced production is a model of lucidity - this slight, strange play, in his hands, carries great conviction.

But he has not solved the problem of the heroine. Helena's love for Bertram, the Countess's son, is not returned, as she well knows, having grown up, a poor orphan, in his household. Yet when she cures the dying king and is granted any husband she wishes, she chooses Bertram. He sullenly goes through with the ceremony, then scarpers. Helena follows, with a scheme to get him back.

Her mission is presented as virtue bent on claiming its reward, but really, of course, it is narcissism insisting on what it "deserves". Doran and his Helena, Claudie Blakley, never suggest this, though some may think that Blakley, the weakest in the cast, is demonstrating her self-infatuation. I felt that the smug grimaces and precious, breathy voice were her idea of how to personify shining chastity.

This little-seen play feels second hand, with its practical joke on Parolles that recalls the duping of Malvolio in Twelfth Night and its ringer-in-the-bedroom bit that Shakespeare went on to improve in the mordant Measure for Measure.

It also has a blank where the character of Bertram should be, no doubt because giving him his due would tip the balance of sympathy. Jamie Glover is well spoken, but adds nothing of his own to what comes across as a sulky yuppie. One can hear the groundlings murmuring: what does this guy want? The girl is clever, she's pretty, the king likes her - and he's complaining? But this philistine response is hardly the only one possible. As the couple face each other, alone, in the darkening twilight, one hears, behind the heartiness of the title, the whisper: "So they say."

To 24 April (0870 890 1105)