Embers, Duke of York's, London

It's just Mills & Boon for boys
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The Independent Culture

This is meant to be a slow burn, and it should be excellent: Jeremy Irons, directed by Michael Blakemore, in a new play by Christopher Hampton. But, unfortunately, the tinder is bemusingly, hopelessly damp.

Based on Sándor Márai's novel, Embers is set in a Hungarian castle, where Irons' Henrik, an aristocratic general (uncannily resembling GB Shaw), has been waiting for his best friend - for 41 years. Konrad fled in 1899 after having a love affair with Henrik's wife and nearly murdering his pal during a deer hunt. Understandably, Irons has a few questions to ask when Patrick Malahide's Konrad does finally come to dinner.

Though elegantly turned out in a vaulted chamber, the evening proves to be a shaggy-dog saga after some creaky intimations that it's to be a revenge thriller - the old gun in the drawer, rumbling thunder and lightning. Unfortunately, the ensuing power cut merely reflects the near-ludicrous lack of dramatic dynamism. Was this written for the radio? Nothing happens, except drinks are poured, cigars are puffed and the lights eventually come back on, in case anyone was napping. It's all talk, endlessly raked-over reminiscences which, in a novel might draw you in but which, on stage, look stiffly inert.

Henrik's philosophising about male friendship seems woefully platitudinous too, perhaps because we never see it in action. This is Mills & Boon for boys and barely even a dialogue. Malahide perfects a frown for two hours, keeping mum. Irons does heat up, inwardly fuming, but the unanswered question is really, "Why has anyone bothered to stage this?"

Henrik's wife, by the way, died years ago, allegedly of grief but quite possibly of boredom.

Booking to 27 May, 0870 060 6623

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