Victor/Victoria, Bridewell Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

A play by Phyllis Nagy opens with the immortal line: "Female impersonation is a rather curious career choice for a woman, Miss Coo". Strange indeed; but, in an elaborately roundabout way, that is precisely the profession pursued by the heroine of Victor/Victoria. This durable entertainment began life as a 1982 movie and (still starring Julie Andrews) evolved into a mid-Nineties Broadway musical, in which guise (though not starring Julie Andrews) it now receives its first English staging via Phil Willmott's low-budget, high-spirited production at the Bridewell.

With a traverse-formation set, footlights, a bar and little lamp-lit tables, the theatre poses, tongue-in-cheek, as a louche Paris nightclub of the 1930s. Sultry hoofers promise that "We'll tell you straight why gay Paree is gay". Two gendarmes race in to arrest an amorous male couple, only to be seduced into second thoughts. So when a struggling English singer, Victoria, fails an audition here, her queeny protector Toddy (a likeably outrageous Christopher Holt) makes a wild suggestion: instead of performing her material straight, she should claim to be a man pretending to be a woman and thus launch a career as the greatest female impersonator in Europe. I know that this material is based on a true story, but the trick still runs into a snag in performance: it's a double-bluff that cancels itself out. After all, one looks for frisson-inducing sexual ambiguity in a drag act, not indistinguishability from the real thing. Ria Jones's diminutive, ardently sung Victoria is twenty-four carat woman in nightclub routines such as the raunchy "Le Jazz Hot". Toddy tells her that "All you have to do for your dream to come true/ Is go out and be what you are". But the irony that she can only be herself in the persona of a pseudo-male drag act remains notional rather than felt.

Maybe this is why the score (with music by Henry Mancini and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse) weights things more towards the dilemmas produced offstage when Victor/Victoria runs into King Marshan, a handsome Chicago gangster who is town with his brassy blonde girlfriend Norma (paradoxically more like a man in drag than anybody, in Emma Barton's screechy, grating performance). Mark Halliday attractively traces King's progress from knee-jerk scepticism (if I find a person desirable, it proves that that person must be female), through comical doubts about his own manhood to acceptance of his love for Victor/Victoria, regardless of gender.

Stewart Alexander is adorable as King's beefy bodyguard Squash who, mistakenly thinking that his employer has "gone gay" bursts out of the closet himself. There are one or two retrogressive moments (like a faint suggestion that being homosexual Toddy is the same predicament as being disguised Victoria). But, for the most part,this show appreciably adds to the gaiety of nations.

To 31 January (020-7936 3456)

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