Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Playhouse, London<br></br>Peter Pan, Savoy, London<br></br>Why the Whales Came, Comedy, London<br></br>Revelations, Hampstead, London

As sexy as a pickled frog
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The Independent Culture

Sacré bleu, quelle liaison désastreuse! I've had sexier nights staying in with a cup of tepid cocoa. Based on Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 novel and featuring lust, intrigue, vengeance and bodices, Christopher Hampton's drama Les Liaisons Dangereuses is meant to be simultaneously chilling and steamy. Just remember the "Oohs" and "Aahs" that greeted the film version where John Malkovich played the decadent Vicomte de Valmont and seduced pretty ingénues, egged on by his old flame and nemesis, Glenn Close's Marquise de Merteuil. Yet, good Lord, what a flop this West End revival is, staged by Tim Cambridge Spies Fywell.

The whole production is fraudulent, from the unhistorical make-up to designer Robert Innes-Hopkins's bunch of tacky chandeliers. Are they, one wonders, a glimpse of the post-Revolutionary future when all French aristocrats will be forced to work in some high-street lighting emporium? Most perversely in the circumstances, Monsieur Fywell has been persuaded to trust in theatrical dynasties. As Valmont, Jared Harris (son of Richard) displays embarrassingly little talent. The Vicomte is surely meant to exude pheromones through his finery, and hover between faking and feeling intense love for Madame de Tourvel, his obsession. Well, Harris lolls on a chaise longue with all the animal passion of a pickled frog.

Portraying Torvel, husky Emilia Fox (daughter of Edward) struggles to be swept off her feet, though she conveys despair credibly enough. Laurence Penry-Jones (brother of Rupert) is stolid as Valmont's rival. Meanwhile, Polly Walker fails to capture Merteuil's steely edge and poise. The complex psychology of emotional damage and dissolution is lost and Hampton's script, without sophisticated acting, is left looking shoddy, surprisingly low-grade and lacklustre.

Harris certainly lays on his double entendres with a trowel, as if this is an adaptation of the Carry On team's cod-Pimpernel film, Don't Lose Your Head. One can only feel sorry for the two fine supporting actresses, Sarah Woodward and Dilys Laye, and applaud the fight choreography which terminates the Vicomte in style.

Though both are unable to fully return a woman's devotion, Peter Pan is the antithesis of Valmont as the ever-innocent boy. His adventures don't include discovering any burgeoning sexual feelings for Wendy, although she clearly wants to do more than just mother him. J M Barrie's play (which preceded the book) evidently isn't just "a fantasy for children". Between the lines, it's about psycho-sexual problems, Freudian family romances and other unorthodox inclinations.

Unfortunately, that's almost the only shard of interest left to cling on to in Steven Dexter's fast-sinking production. A selling point is, supposedly, that the 99-year-old script has hardly been tampered with, but Dexter's careless direction leaves the play looking like an underdeveloped shambles. All right, it is scattered with droll one-liners. Anthony Head's Captain Hook is a mildly entertaining and menacing smoothie, dancing a mean hornpipe and pursuing Peter with a hook shaped like Death's scythe. Meanwhile, Katie Foster-Barnes is a pert Wendy who deserves to go places.

Lamentably though, Jack Blumenau's Peter is nothing special and the sets are a nightmare: a nauseatingly saccharine nursery and a Neverland that resembles an underfunded inner-city playground with a few rope ladders and barrels daubed in primary colours. Worse, the stage magic is non-existent. Who's going to believe in fairies when Tinkerbell is a cheap green spotlight and the flying looks depressingly like kids on meat hooks. On the technically ropey press night, Wendy actually crashed. Accidentally stealing Peter's thunder, she punctuated his line, "To die would be an awfully big adventure", by drifting off on a kite and slamming straight into a wall. Poor darling.

No Neverland crocs lurk round the Scilly Isles in Why the Whales Came. Beautifully adapted by the Devonshire troupe Theatre Alibi, Michael Morpurgo's children's book offers a subtly spooky as well as comforting tale about two friends, Gracie and Daniel, growing up in 1914 on the remote island of Bryher. Everyone treats the mad old Birdman with superstitious dread because all the other inhabitants from Samson, his native island, died - apparently under a curse because they greedily slaughtered distressed whales. The children befriend the Birdman and, during the First World War, defend him from xenophobic thugs.

Lessons about courage and aggression, immigrants and animal protection are woven into this tale but never spelled out heavy-handedly. Fundamentally, this is absorbing storytelling, mixing a historic portrait of a community with folk mythology, which is both questioned and allowed some rein. Greg Banks's adaptation, co-directed by Nikki Sved, is refreshingly simple and imaginative. The acting is sturdy and sensitive with a cast of five doubling and narrating on an intimate set that is strewn with lobster pots and upturned rowboats. James Walker's wiry, white-bearded Birdman is adorable and sometimes fierce, while an on-stage cellist evokes suspense and the call of the off-shore whales with edgy, haunting chords. Small but perfectly formed.

Unfortunately, Revelations brings us back to promiscuous liaisons and excruciating boredom. In Stephen Lowe's new sub-Ayckbournian comedy, brash Jimmy and tarty Shirley organise orgies for first-time swingers. When they turn up on Edward and Jeni's doorstep, sexual congress looks unlikely. An ageing academic aesthete, Edward is appalled by Jimmy's bag of kinky cossies and the obligatory pretence that they're in a porn movie. The other guests are two ex-missionaries and a pair of undercover documentary-makers. It turns out the fantasy outfits fit the bill for some, while others find an open relationship makes them jealous.

This is hardly revelatory and Lowe's dialogue never rings true. He drafts in an art historian and preacher so he can insert lectures containing big ideas about Adam and Eve, early Christian sects and their Dionysian love-feasts. In a programme note, he underlines his sex comedy is unusually non-judgemental, but that doesn't stop it being punishingly dull. Most of Anthony Clark's cast are stalwart troopers, especially Paul Slack as the bullish Jimmy and Bertie Carvel in amiable vicar mode. Nevertheless, with Hampstead in financial difficulties, Clark can't afford to put on such feeble new plays.


'Les Liaisons Dangereuses': Playhouse, London WC2 (020 7369 1785), to 27 March; 'Peter Pan': Savoy, London WC2 (020 7836 8888), to 4 Jan; 'Why the Whales Came': Comedy, London SW1 (020 7369 1731), to 7 Jan; 'Revelations': Hampstead, London NW3 (020 7722 9301), to 31 Jan