Shaolin Monks: Wheel of Life, Peacock Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

The Kung Fu monks are back, with their shaven heads, orange robes and impossible feats of strength.

The Kung Fu monks are back, with their shaven heads, orange robes and impossible feats of strength. They balance on spear points, they turn lazily perfect somersaults, they knock themselves flat and spring upright in one move. One very small monk, surely up past his bedtime, stands on one leg with the other stretched up against his ear. Then he keels over sideways to land in the splits, holds those for a moment, and swivels off into another contortion.

The Sadler's Wells press officer spent several minutes assuring me that the Shaolin monks really are monks. They train intensively at the mountain temple in central China, then tour the world to raise funds for the order back home. I don't doubt it, though warrior Buddhism is an incongruous idea before it lands on a West End stage.

The Shaolin show, a worldwide hit, is back for its third season at the Peacock Theatre. Orange silk banners hang in the bleak foyers. In the interval, in defiance of safety warnings from the stage, excited children try out kung fu poses. It's a slick, tidy show, though the producers' extras are, in fact, its weakest features. The kung fu is fitted around an episode of temple history. The monks are summoned to the emperor, and defend him from an evil warlord. When they refuse to act as his permanent bodyguard, the emperor murders them. Five young monks survive the massacre and keep the order alive.

This story is told with great cheesiness. An "At a cinema near you" voiceover explains the plot. The actors stamp and scowl. The soundtrack is Chinese music packaged for the West - some frail flute-playing, some drum'n'bass. A few scenes work nicely. The attacking enemy rush through the auditorium to the stage. They brandish tinfoil swords with glee, though their blades flap and flutter with every stroke. The emperor wears a series of silk robes, embroidered with colour- co-ordinated dragons.

Still, there's a lot of standing around while the emperor and his enemies growl at each other, or while the monks die tragically. The kung fu battle is weak, the fighting seems too obviously choreographed.

The audience waits patiently for the demonstrations of skill. These are just astonishing. The somersaults are the most beautiful: the young men hold clear positions in the air, curling through tumble after tumble. The youngest monks, solemn little boys, have a worrying variation in which they spring from their feet on to the crowns of their shaved heads.

There are other wince-making moments. One adult monk lies down on several sword blades. His brother monks lay a bed of nails on his chest; a second monk lies down on that, with a plank on top of him. A third smashes the plank with a hammer. Then there's the monk who does fingerstands, his whole weight resting on his two forefingers.

More poetically, another monk whirls a set of linked sticks, so fast and so elegantly that he seems to have stylised wings whirring behind him.

To 2 October (0870 737 0337)

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