THEATRE Elton John's Glasses Palace Theatre, Watford

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The Independent Culture
In the wake of football's fashionable intellectualisation, it now seems to be dominating Britain's cultural midfield. Not a season passes without it being repeatedly called off the bench to withstand the neurotic preoccupations of thirtysomething males. As for the rest of us, if we're not reading or watching it, then we're probably speaking it - most of us have been "red carded" or declared "off-side" anywhere but on a football pitch.

In deference to the original football apologist Nick Hornby, Watford FC-obsessed Bill, the central character of David Farr's appealing if uneven comedy, is wallowing in a football-induced personal crisis. On the final day of the 1996 season, Bill (a convincingly hangdog Tom Mannion) retreats from the Hornets' looming relegation by repeatedly watching on video the moment Watford lost the 1984 FA Cup - the play's title refers to Bill's deluded conviction that the outsized spectacles of the then Watford chairman, Elton John, contributed to the Hornets' defeat. He is roused from his indolence, however, by the appearance of his wise-talking little brother Dan (the commanding and witty Will Keen) after a six-year absence, and enlivened by Amy, a young Hornets fanatic. During a day of unlikely coincidences and personal revelations, Bill is forced to reconsider his empty life and moribund relationship with his girlfriend, Julie.

"I always used to spend too long in defence and now I've brought it into my life": a gloomy admission for Bill but one that Farr and director Terry Johnson gleefully exploit, catching the football anorak's twittering Colemanisms: "Blissett, his glittering career surely in its autumn, is not quite the supreme athlete of yesteryear." For the most part, the play tears along with the dazzling comic footwork that tickled the public and critics alike in Johnson's production of Dead Funny a few years ago. Mind you, opening to a Hornets' nest at the Palace Theatre, Watford, the production is playing at home, against 10 men, downhill, with the wind behind it. Nevertheless, the play works best when the talented cast deliver quality slapstick and one-liners with unflagging energy, unravelling the furtive relationships and guilt that ensnare the characters in Bill's cramped bedsit.

The play's generous dramatic scope comes at a price, though. Such is the quality of the writing that you want to know if each character amounts to more than an admittedly impressive battery of sharp retorts. Surely there's a bit more at the heart of Bill's neuroses than a pair of gold specs? The women, too - despite a ballsy turn by Gabrielle Glaister as Julie and Kelly Reilly's gauche presence as Amy - fill a little too snugly the stoic emotionally wise role reserved for them by Hornby and co. Ranging at breakneck pace through labyrinthine plot complications, the play shades into farce. No bad thing in itself, but its leisurely opening scene pointed to something a little more subtle. The problem in part stems from the need to create comedy from Bill's awkward theatre of personal obsessions. Unlike Elton John's Glasses, Nick Hornby gives his insecurities room to breathe in Fever Pitch, while An Evening with Gary Lineker used football as a handy dramatic device.

With a redeeming originality, though, Elton John's Glasses doesn't try to solve Bill's domestic crises over the course of a Saturday afternoon. By the end, Bill has moved from dim ignorance to dim awareness and not much more.

To 21 June. Booking: 01923 225671

Mike Higgins