The Fantasticks, Duchess Theatre, London

3.00

In New York, it's the musical equivalent of The Mousetrap, with a record-breaking run virtually unbroken since its 1960 premiere. So whatever else you may say about The Fantasticks, you would have to concede that this Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt tuner is a theatrical phenomenon. London, though, has remained somewhat resistant to its fabled minimalist charms. With a Japanese director, Amon Miyamoto, at the helm, an attractive English cast, a few departures from the norm and Jason Carr's rejigged orchestrations for the tiny band, this new production aims to break down our defences.

Juggling the artless and the artful, The Fantasticks is a show that could all too easily become a cutesy exercise in the faux-naive and a cynical case of wanting to have it both ways. But, as the performers demonstrate here, an essential innocence of spirit can mischievously co-exist with jokey theatrical self-consciousness. In the role of the puppet-master of proceedings that often have the improvisatory air of children delightedly rummaging in the dressing-up basket, Hadley Fraser, for example, achieves just the right balance between knowing amusement and unguarded emotion, delivering "Try to Remember", the show's best song, with a plangent ardour.

Full of affectionately spoofed devices, The Fantasticks is a sort of Romeo and Juliet turned inside-out. Clive Rowe and David Burt are endearingly ridiculous as a pair of fathers who trick their offspring into falling in love by faking a feud and erecting a wall between their gardens. Though they are not pulse-quickening vocally, Lorna Want and Luke Brady graduate movingly from romantic puppy love to pained realism as the young couple who, on learning of the deception, part and go their separate ways, only to reunite after bruising experience of the world. The best double-act, though, comes courtesy of Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter who emerge from a trunk to play a quixotic, quote-besotted old thesp and his gormless sidekick whose speciality is chaotically mimed death-scenes.

Yes, it occasionally puts the "grate" in ingratiating. Yes, at two-and-half hours, it begins to outstay its welcome. But as an open-hearted antidote to soulless, big-budget hi-tech, The Fantasticks continues to prove that small can be quite fetching.

To 4 September (0844 412 4659)

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