Talk about life reflecting art. Mel Brooks's keenly awaited Broadway musical, The Producers, isn't just a show about showbiz, depicting farcical shenanigans on the Great White Way. Everyone who chortled at the original 1960s film version will recall that the laughs centre round two impresarios, Bialystock and Bloom, who are putting on an almost-guaranteed flop called Springtime For Hitler - a shameless heap of fascistic kitsch with a walking disaster taking the title role.
So, one could hardly fail to note the unwanted ironic twist when the news broke, last month, that The Producers' London première (with a list of backers as long as your arm) was itself in dire straits. Richard Dreyfuss was declared physically unfit to play Bialystock and sent packing. At this point, the whole venture might have bitten the dust.
However, of course, Springtime For Hitler turns out to be a ludicrous surprise hit and, in spite of the panic, The Producers' snag-busting director, Susan Stroman, has a big success on her hands too - the obvious difference being that she and Brooks have achieved this with sassy determination while Bialystock and Bloom sneakily hoped Springtime would fold so they could pocket their investors' unspent millions. Stroman's staging has already won 12 Tony Awards across the pond, and her Drury Lane production is peppy and slick with the Dreyfuss affair, in fact, turning up an unexpected trump card.
Rushed in from the US to reprise his acclaimed performance as Bialystock, Nathan Lane is joyously funny and having a blast with Lee Evans' Bloom as his sidekick. You immediately sense, with relief, that Lane could do this show standing on his head as he slithers hilariously around his sleazy casting couch. A small, plump ball of energy, he also fires off his quips with split-second comic timing - in marked contrast to Zero Mostel's slow performance in the movie.
Evans is, in turn, an irresistible clown, having attacks of nervous hysterics like a malfunctioning wind-up toy - ramming himself into corners and freezing solid then ricocheting away, juddering and shrieking for his comfort blanket. He also, by the by, has a quite pleasant, slightly husky singing voice. However, he can't really dance. Bloom's fantasy tap routine - when he's about to quit his dull accountancy office for a life in the theatre - requires more jets of dry ice to fully conceal Evans' surprisingly flat-footed moves. Beyond that, the wall-to-wall fun occasionally becomes wearisome, lacking real satirical bite. Such cavils aside though, this is a burlesque with spectacular brio, with gold-spangled chorus girls, the razzle-dazzle of bright lights, and zany surprises - not least a pigeon that gives a literally right-wing Nazi salute. Substantially redrafted by Brooks and his co-author Thomas Meehan, the dialogue is peppered with far more sparky and merrily rude gags than the screenplay, and Brooks' songs are mostly droll, with echoes of everything from Fiddler On The Roof to Forty Second Street and a riot of politically incorrect rhymes ("a great big smile ... zeig heil" etc). Besides Lane and Evans, Conleth Hill transmogrifies into a wonderfully camp Hitler, skipping around when he should be goosestepping and coyly sitting on the edge of the stage, swinging his legs like Judy Garland. All in all, a definite winner for Christmas and - if they can find a substitute for Lane in January - surely a long-runner.
The second major opening of the week was, alas, mighty disappointing. You have to admire the impresario Thelma Holt's derring-do, hooking up the Japanese director, Yukio Ninagawa, with Michael Maloney and other UK actors for a national tour of Hamlet that is also under the aegis of BITE:04. Ninagawa's set looks promisingly stark and beautiful: a black chasm with glimmering light bulbs swinging on high, as if the heavens are disturbed in sympathy with the bereaved Prince's perturbation. To give him his due, Maloney also notably explores the tensions between Hamlet's lucid thinking and bouts of madness, between imagination and reality. Most strikingly, after talking to his father's ghost, he curses his most pernicious mother and smiling damned uncle, pointing accusingly into thin air as if he is now feverously hallucinating about them too.
Unfortunately, Ninagawa seems to be unaware that most of his cast's verse-speaking is dire. Bob Barrett's tender Horatio is a noble exception, but Robert Demeger's Polonious and Peter Egan's Claudius are excruciatingly dull, halting and gabbling, while Maloney has hammy moments of sibilant whispering. As for the costumes, the mishmash of Oriental armour, vaguely Pre-Raphaelite gowns and tank tops is enough to drive you insane.
If Hamlet has been deprived of parental comforts, so has the shy adolescent, David, in Richard Cameron's new play, Gong Donkeys. He is sent straight from boarding school to spend the hols with his uncle and aunt in their Doncaster pre-fab because his mother is in a psychiatric ward. Meantime, Uncle Robert is unpleasantly bullish, so David hangs out on the local wasteland with his cousin Charlene and two mentally backward lads, Wink and Gobbo. This involves some laughs, but a little girl goes missing and Gobbo is blamed.
Something has gone wrong here, not just regarding David's vacation. The combo of Cameron and the Bush's assistant director, Mike Bradwell, worked far better a couple of years ago with The Glee Club. Burn Gorman stands out as the comical and menacing Wink: a scraggy nerd who pretends he's a commando. However, Rory Jennings's prim David is so taciturn you hardly get to know him. Peter Bramhill's Gobbo isn't convincing and Edward Peel's Robert is a hectoring bore. Fundamentally, the play feels muddy and the characters' fantasies takes strained forms with the youngsters play-act unlikely scenes about Dickens and Wilkie Collins, pretending they're in a soap. Though tragedy is avoided, Gong Donkeys left me in the slough of despond.
Indeed, it hasn't been a storming week for new writing. In spite of its title, Fresh Kills feels slightly stale as well as underdeveloped. This short American tragedy by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder is about the dangers of internet chat rooms, paedophilia and stalking. All these topics have already been handled at this theatre more insightfully and, when the sexually predatory adolescent, Arnold, starts blackmailing Phil Daniels' Eddie, Wilson Milam's production ends up predictably spattered with blood. Still, this is part of the Young Playwrights' Season, Wilder has a good ear for dialogue that merits encouragement and, though the US accents wobble, Matt Smith's gangly Arnold is disturbing, needy and viciously manipulative. A name to watch.
'The Producers': Drury Lane Theatre Royal, London WC2 (0870 890 1109), to 23 April; 'Hamlet': Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7550), to 27 Nov; 'Gong Donkeys': Bush, London W12 (020 7610 4224), to 11 Dec; 'Fresh Kills': Royal Court Upstairs, London (020 7565 5100), to 20 NovReuse content