THEATRE: Enter the Guardsman

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The Independent Culture
Denmark labours under fearsome stereotypes. People always think they gave the world the pop group A-ha. They didn't. That was Norway. Then there's Danish bacon, Danish Blue, a herring-heavy diet, saunas, The Little Mermaid, and all those blond men called Nils.

Their latest claim to fame is the Musical of the Year. Last year's world- wide competition winner, the chamber piece Enter the Guardsman, opens at the Donmar Warehouse next month, but last weekend saw a grand staging of the runner-up. Ledreborg Castle, a lovingly restored 18th-century building atop a hill overlooking beautifully kept gardens, provided an extravagantly lush setting. Over two days, 16,000 people spent a gloriously sunny afternoon picnicking and listening to a concert version of The Three Musketeers - a big, bold piece pencilled in for Chichester next summer.

With more than 100 stage and screen versions of Dumas's story already mounted, the creators are undaunted. Even in this radically reorganised concert version, the scale of the piece is fairly stupendous. The (mostly British) cast, headed by the likes of Desmond Barritt, Ria Jones and Claire Moore, ran to 22, backed by Danish Radio's 55-piece orchestra.

Nearly all the action was reduced to simple narration, which made it hard to assess its dramatic strengths, but the musical drive of the best songs was never in doubt thanks to the sheer craft of composer George Stiles. Much of the credit for the lush, sweeping sound, however, goes to the conductor and expert orchestrator David Firman.

You'd have to be mad to mount a show of this size, but Firman believes he can rescore it for something closer to 16 players, which turns it into a much more viable proposition. Eschewing the po-faced pomp of the through- sung show Stiles, lyricist Paul Leigh and bookwriter Peter Raby have come up with an old-style book show which allows them to slip in and out of scenes and cover a range of musical styles.

In addition to Boublil and Schonberg, there are distinct echoes of Sondheim with whom Leigh studied. The song "Riding to Paris" sounds like a cross between "On the Steps of the Palace" from Into the Woods and "The Glamorous Life" from the film of A Little Night Music. The rousing, completely infectious number "The Life of a Musketeer" (the best in the show) fits spookily onto the climactic number "Guinevere" from Lerner and Loewe's Camelot. Mind you, if you're going to be influenced, it might as well be by the greats. If the audience response was anything to go by, they're home and dry.

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