Tales from the Vienna Woods, National Theatre, Olivier, London

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The Independent Culture

Richard Jones's chilly revival of this 1931 play by Odon von Horvath is dominated by gigantic period postcards of the eponymous Vienna Woods. The "wish you were here" spirit is ironic in more ways than one, though, for it was clear that many of the first-night audience were fervently wishing they weren't.

These deckle-edged nostalgic souvenirs form the mobile backdrop to a production that uses the full depth of this epic arena as it depicts petit-bourgeois society in an Austria edging towards fascism. We see a youthful aerobics class practising its moves. Swimmers bound in and leap off the front edge of the stage into their beloved blue Danube. A village band marches about, dispensing patriotic musical schmaltz. In one of the novelty turns in a saucy cabaret, a fat lady gets togged up as an absurd human Zeppelin and stalks magisterially up the aisle. Everywhere is activity - and hardly anywhere is there genuine life.

Presented here in a flinty new translation by David Harrower, the play is to be honoured as a work of clear-eyed courage. Horvath does not flinch from skewering the brutal bigotries and sentimental evasions in this community, despite knowing that this would make him a prize victim. Christopher Hampton's fine companion play, Tales from Hollywood, imagined the dramatist in 1940s Tinseltown exile, like many other émigré authors. The truth was worse: he died in Paris in 1938.

The emotional centre of Tales from the Vienna Woods is Marianne, the widowed toyshop owner's young daughter (sensitively played by Nicola Walker). On the very day of her engagement to the besotted local butcher (Darrell D'Silva), she opts for a much riskier attachment to Joe Duttine's attractive, worthless Alfred, an unsuccessful gambler who declares that "work in the old sense doesn't pay any more" in these inflationary times.

The inevitable follows. Rejection by father, a baby, desertion by lover, destitution, verge of prostitution. The aim is to contrast the sugary self-deception of the community singing and the nostalgic escapism of the whirling Strauss waltzes with unvarnished brutal reality. But in this production, the tension between the two is not strong enough.

As the programme points out, Horvath was intrigued by the idea of kitsch. He reasoned that life itself is kitschy - and not just in terms of style and expression: "Even people's feelings are kitschy, by which I mean trivialised and distorted." He recognised that "the collision of kitsch... with the pitilessness of life is tragic."

Far from colliding, those elements manage to miss each other by a mile here. Jones's production knows how to satirise kitschiness and make a grand melodramatic gesture - as in the striking close of the first half when Marianne is denied absolution by a priest because she won't repent the existence of her baby, whereupon the scene mutates, with nightmarish symbolism, into the ritual public slaughter of a pig. But the butchery turns out to be as bloodless as the rest of the proceedings.

There are some very good actors in the 33-strong company, including Frances Barber, vivid and vampish as a camp middle-age siren with an unjaded taste for young men, and Karl Johnson as Marianne's weak but intransigent papa, an alcohol-flushed bag of bones. It's a shame, though, that they have all been required to convey the characters as sociological specimens rather than as people who give you an occasional haunting sense of how they might have been. Things have come to a pass when a production of this drama makes you think wistfully of that other show about Austria heading into Nazism - The Sound of Music.

To 19 Nov (020-7452 3000)

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