Dreams From A Summer House, Watermill Theatre, Newbury

A little nightmare music
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A programme note to Dreams from a Summer House says that the story of Beauty and the Beast, which has inspired the musical, symbolises adult sexual love - bestial through a child's eyes, but really complex, beautiful and productive.

Would somebody please tell Alan Ayckbourn? The characters in his plays babble uncontrollably, drink too much, scream, cry, even try to kill one another - anything but get down to business. If this playwright's sexual persona seems to have stopped at that of a shy 11-year-old, his creations suffer from sexual terror, manifested in stony repression or gibbering hysteria.

Though the title of this show recalls Ingmar Bergman's ravishingly sensual film Smiles of a Summer Night (adapted by Stephen Sondheim into A Little Night Music), the dreams are wet, in both senses, and the plot has far less logic than most sleepers' fantasies.

With her lawn covered by "practically the whole of Leatherhead, clamouring to be entertained," and a useless caterer going to pieces, Chrissie's troubles are increased when her daughter Amanda unexpectedly returns from her second honeymoon. The script makes her do that so she can confront her first husband, Robert, who is staying in the summerhouse at the bottom of the garden, where the fairies live. Robert, an illustrator of children's books, has been thinking really, really hard about the distressed damsel he has just painted, when, without even an abracadabra, she materialises (pursued by the Beast) and falls in love with him.

One would really have to be a dream girl to do that, for Robert, an embittered alcoholic, sounds off about "titless" women who "argue just for the pleasure of putting men down" and envisions his ideal woman as someone with a huge "chest" and a "sunny disposition" who "whispers, 'I love you, I love you, I love you,' for ever and ever."

No surprise, then, that Robert's lovemaking is that of an infantile drunk, embracing Beauty and sighing deeply. (They do, however, get up to something unspecified inside the little house, from which Beauty emerges, Doris Day- style, naked but for one of Robert's shirts.)

There's also Amanda's sister, a sullen teenager who calls women "tarts" if they wear make-up and whose antagonism toward Robert hides - from the cretinous and comatose - a pining heart.

Ayckbourn wrote the book and lyrics of this indigestible mishmash, and John Pattison the music, in 10 days in May 1992 in sunny Majorca. The rush to deadline - and perhaps a heavy intake of the local wine - could explain the confusing plot, dribbly music and sloppy, almost rhymeless lyrics. But, 10 years on, only colossal gall could account for foisting this thing once more on the public.

In Tim Sheader's rather draggy production, however, one's spirits are lifted by several appealing performers: Stewart Sculdamore as the rampaging but soft-hearted Beast, Giles Taylor as Amanda's nervous second husband, Nick Lumley as Chrissie's nice-old-stick husband, and, most of all, Elizabeth Counsell, who, as Chrissie, combines a good-sport personality with an airy sophistication that almost makes you believe this tosh is a clever comedy.

To 5 July (01635 46044)

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