Beautiful and Damned, Lyric Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

It's been a long time since musicals thrived on old-fashioned romance - indeed, looking back over the past 40 years, it is remarkable how completely non-commitment, sexual boredom and marital strife have become the stock themes of the form. Even so, the marriage of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald seems an unpromising basis for a fun night out in the West End. For a brief time, they were the most glamorous couple in America, blessed with looks, talent, money and success. But the party soon collapsed in sexual taunts, affairs, alcoholism (his) and mental breakdown (hers).

When he died in 1940, aged 44, she had already spent the best part of a decade in a mental hospital, where she died in a fire eight years later. How on earth do you turn that into a musical? The answer is: you make it an old-fashioned romance: Beautiful and Damned tells how they loved each other from the first ("You're not like anybody I've ever met," Zelda tells Scott, "But I feel like I've known you all my life") and how, through all the bad times, that love never truly died. It is hard to see how anybody could fit this shallow caricature to the reality of the Fitzgeralds' lives; but that is only the first of a calamitous series of creative mismatches.

The words and music are by the veteran songwriters Roger Cook and Les Reed, who both have distinguished CVs; Cook's hits include "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing", while Lee wrote "It's Not Unusual" for Tom Jones. For this show, they have turned out a score of unmemorable Twenties pastiche, alternating with big, bland love-songs in which stereotyped emotions are expressed through rhyme-schemes so predictable that you are wincing some seconds before the rhyme arrives.

Kit Hesketh Harvey has done his best to cobble together a coherent book. The story is narrated in flashback by the insane Zelda to her psychiatrist: the device explains away some of the show's distortions of fact, but it is not well sustained, and Helen Anker's portrayal of madness is embarrassingly picturesque. Odd flashes of wit, pri- marily involving David Burt's droll Hemingway, are lost in an acreage of inanity: "Get out of Hollywood," Fitzgerald's publisher advises him. "Go back to Zelda. She's your inspiration, always has been." Craig Revel Horwood's direction and choreography are at best uninspired, mostly just inept; his take on flapper decadence is particularly dreary and offputting.

It doesn't help that the action takes place in front of some of the most revolting sets I have ever seen, featuring giant versions of art deco motifs in oppressive colours. The poor actors - I felt particular sympathy for Michael Praed's Fitzgerald - are stifled, and so is any sense of the things for which we might actually want to remember Fitzgerald: the exactness of his prose, the pose of desperation lightly worn. Beautiful? Absolutely not. Damned? Somebody ought to be.

To 14 August (0870 890 1107)