Murderous Instincts, Savoy Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Reading reports of the strife-ridden run-up to this London opening, I began to feel that Murderous Instincts should be renamed Suicidal Tendencies.

Reading reports of the strife-ridden run-up to this London opening, I began to feel that Murderous Instincts should be renamed Suicidal Tendencies. If ever a show looked as though it would be dancing into an early, self-excavated, grave out of town, it was this "salsa comedy murder mystery". Written by Cinda Fox, heiress of the Firestone rubber company fortune, and produced by her spouse, Manny, the show has managed to get through more directors than Elizabeth Taylor has had husbands. One (Bob Carlton) was bawled out by Manny in front of the audience during the interval of a Norwich try-out. Another (Michael Rooney, son of Mickey) gave a delicious new twist to the old gag about directors "phoning in a production" when, with his application for an emergency work permit blocked, he actually tried to oversee the show from Paris.

Could Murderous Instincts possibly be as entertaining on stage as it has been off? Well, the answer is: at times, damn nearly. Licked into last-minute shape by "artistic advisers" Murray Melvin and Syd Ralph, the show is as daft as all hell, as camp as Carmen Miranda's headdress, and tacky above and beyond the call of duty. But it's hard to resist a show where the wondrous Nichola McAuliffe, letting rip with a power-vibrato that a road-drill would envy, gets to play a musical cross between a Tennessee Williams heroine and Margarita Pracatan. Her role is that of Edwina, the newly widowed spouse of a rum tycoon. As her dysfunctional family gathers at a Puerto Rican mansion for the reading of the will, and to ponder Edwina's subsequent mysterious disappearance, secrets - teenage abortions, hidden homosexual leanings - start to tumble out of the closet. Murderous Instincts is to raw machismo what Ernest Hemingway was to flower-arranging. Mocking the butch paternal ideal that has repressed the family (and which forced Edwina to doff her crown as the queen of song, and also warped the kids), it sets off a flurry of mutual blackmail.

There are two basic problems. One is that the camp outrageousness can't build up a real head of steam because it keeps being interrupted by straight-faced, soul-searching numbers. Arvid Larsen and Jonathan D Ellis are a hoot as the American-values family man, Colin, and his unofficial, screamingly queeny boyfriend, Miguel; the daughter who married the wrong guy is not.

The other snag is that we are kept waiting too long for the salsa to sizzle. The idea, it seems, is that all these characters are so comically uptight that the Latino beat has to remain tantalisingly in the background until the plot has forced them to shed their inhibitions. I understand the dramatic logic of that, but feel that they could start letting go somewhat earlier. Apart from one ensemble explosion of gay lib, it's only in the final nightclub scene that the joint really starts jumping, and the world salsa champion Jhesus Aponte and his partner are allowed to pulsate with precision wit and sexiness. But knock back a few mojitos first and you could end up having a ball.

To 29 January (020-7836 8888)

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