On The Ceiling, Garrick Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Oh how we longed for a sight of Jessie Matthews dancing on the ceiling in Evergreen as Planer's turgid two-hander (with a last-minute guest appearance by the Pope, no less) wound its dismal way through the long evening.

Planer's ceiling is in the Sistine Chapel, 1508, where two craftsmen, Lapo and Loti, stranded on their scaffolding like Beckett's tramps, are working for their artistic maestro. These are the "actual" Renaissance men, while Michelangelo takes the credit and bluffs his way out of a corner because he's really a sculptor, not a painter.

There is the germ of a good idea here. Did Shakespeare write his own plays? Does Mike Leigh? Artistic results are dependent on journeymen collaborators. The rivalry with Raphael, a far superior draftsman and painter, is tacked on as another point of creative reference.

Theatrically, too, Planer is on to something with his potentially witty take on a fresco fiasco that produces a masterpiece despite its accidental and curious provenance. At one point, Ron Cook as Lapo paints in a beautiful profile as if by numbers while conveying a sense of inspiration.

But the play goes nowhere fast, and the double act of Cook and Ralf Little (best known for his gormless layabout in The Royle Family) is fatally unstruck with bile or animus of any kind. These two are not so much The Right Size as the wrong fit; not so much Little and Large as, well, Little and Little. When they finally break into a front cloth routine as a pair of desperately unfunny vaudevillians, the impact is merely compact.

Cook is a fine actor of whom the poet James Fenton once said he would not dare to be disparaging in print. You could imagine Cook arranging to meet you afterwards in a dark alley to administer a good kicking. But there's nary a whiff of that impending violence here, and I feel relatively safe in bemoaning Cook's choice of this role when the London stage could do with him firing on all cylinders in something brilliant. Little is obviously a performer of charm and talent who is not so much stretched as unstrung by this script.

Cook adopts the persona of Michelangelo, as if by right, perhaps, or in a state of metaphorical delusion. Neither the writing nor Jennie Darnell's limp direction is clear on this point. An essay on art history has failed to be fleshed out like the rosy buttocks on the fresco and we are left with a raddled old rump.

If I were not averse to stating the bleedin' obvious, I'd say the whole thing was as riveting as watching paint dry.

To 17 December (0870 145 1163)

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