Kismet, Arcola Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

The Arcola lives on love and hope rather than money, so I wasn't surprised to see that its accompaniment for this luscious musical was a single piano. But I was shocked to see piles of stone blocks representing the corners of a ruined building, and a leafless tree. Three Arabs lay prone on the floor. Set in Baghdad, the piece certainly had a topical start, but is this what the public wants at Christmas?

The notion of mounting an Arabian Nights-type tale as a Yuletide treat is charmingly cheeky, but a lack of funds and sympathy with the material gives the show all the magic of Paul Daniels' late wig. It took me a long time to recover from that opening, even after the three bodies, beggars asleep on the street, rose and stretched.

You know something isn't halal when you look at the programme for the author credits and look again, in vain. Here they are: Kismet was adapted from Edward Knoblock's play of 1911 by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis, who kept the silkily romantic tone of the original while adding a bit of Broadway sauce. The Wazir laughs at the idea that he should take yet another wife: "I don't use the ones I've got!" His chief wife, Lalume, sighs: "I know." Robert Wright and George Forrest wrote wonderfully colourful, sexy lyrics with a knowing wink here and there ("Play on the cymbal, the timbal, the lyre/ Songs of appropriate passion"). They also arranged music by Alexander Borodin, who became the only dead composer to win a Tony, for such hits as "Stranger in Paradise", "And This Is My Beloved" and "Baubles, Bangles and Beads".

One's rapture at hearing the score is constantly punctured by Tiffany Watt-Smith's production. A few minor parts have been cut, along with two songs (sadly, one of them is the triumphant "He's in Love") and all the dances; talent and imagination are as inadequate as the budget to deal with what remains. Theatre-goers who keep asking why Othello can't be played by a white actor without make-up will rejoice at the sight of Simon Masterton-Smith, less old Iranian than old Etonian, as the beggar-poet Hajj.

But even they should agree that his shambling heartiness is not right for this courtly, sinuous role, nor a blonde actress for his daughter, Marsinah. (Renée Salewski is sweet and pretty, though, and has a big, bell-like voice, the only one to do justice to the melodies.) Trevor A Toussaint's wicked Wazir has a great, bloodcurdling laugh, but the rest of his performance is stodgy and glum. As the gorgeous, underused Lalume, Angela Caesar sings and moves with all the grace of a constipated rhino. When she and Masterton-Smith, who wears a robe that looks like a long pinny, have a roll on the cushions, the effect is of two cleaning-ladies who have made free with their employer's sherry.

Since we're unlikely to get a proper revival of the musical, it's nice to hear even this version. But is it Kismet? Hardly.

To 3 January (020-7503 1646)