Mack And Mabel, Criterion Theatre, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

A mystique has attached itself to Mack and Mabel, the Jerry Herman musical that flopped on Broadway in 1974 and lingered for just six months in the West End in 1995. Herman - composer of Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage aux Folles - considers it his finest score and, after Torvill and Dean skated to its overture, it wasn't just buffs who became addicted to the original cast album. The show has never worked in the theatre, but it has the cult status of unappreciated masterpiece.

John Doyle's pared-down staging uses the method he's perfected at Newbury's tiny Watermill Theatre, where this version began life. The show is created by a skilful company of 11 who multitask as actors, musicians and dancers. It may seem an odd procedure for a musical, set in the silent-film era, which calls for the stage to fill with pie-chucking Keystone Cops, "Hundreds of Girls" in bathing costumes and leggy tap-dancers. But by presenting most of these as film footage, the staging aims to cut to the human heart of affairs. It succeeds, only to expose that heart as a pretty inadequate organ.

Janie Dee is a delight as Mabel Normand, the good-natured hash-slinger turned silent-screen star, and David Soul brings a rumpled, rueful charm to the role of Mack Sennett, the workaholic director who (in this distorted account) drove his lover into the arms of an unscrupulous rival and to the drug addiction that destroyed her. Sniffing cocaine from the side of a trumpet and dancing like a harrowed marionette in "Tap Your Troubles Away", Dee makes Mabel's crack-up heart-rending, while Soul, all the better for not being a smooth vocalist, sings Sennett's bittersweet warning "I Won't Send Roses" with the surprised tenderness of a man on the run from his own reluctant sensitivity.

They emerge with honours from a show that remains unsatisfying as drama. The book fails to give any depth or texture to the central relationship, and the score is a sometimes laughably jolting affair. One moment Sennett is disconsolate, the next he's as "happy as a newborn pup" because "Every time a cop fall down/ My heart leaps up"; you're reminded that the composer's natural bent is for the upbeat. The alternative happy ending Sennett directs ("What's an artist for if he can't change life") feels too much like wish-fulfilment to be truly poignant. Mack and Mabel will persist as a cult and a contradiction.

Booking to 22 July (0870 060 2313)