THEATRE / Every man kills the thing he loves: Paul Taylor finds Nicholas Hytner's production of Carousel at the National Theatre smothered by love

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The publicity build-up for the Second Coming is likely, you'd have thought, to be a more low-key affair than the propaganda blitz that has heralded the National Theatre's revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel. In article upon article, every conceivable aspect of Nicholas Hytner's production has been talked up a treat. Indeed, you opened the Angler's Weekly fully expecting to find a clam interviewed about the clambake scene and its pioneering role in establishing positive images of the clam community on Broadway. The key question now is: does the production live up to all this heightened expectation?

In my view, no, though the First Night crowd, it's only fair to say, gave it a thunderous standing ovation. For me, the show offers the frustrating spectacle of a lot of top-notch talent, utterly committed to the project, pushing in the wrong direction. They say that each man kills the thing he loves, and one of the main murder weapons here is a rarifying reverence. Perversely, there are also times when the piece has been burdened with a greater weight of grim reality than it can sustain.

The musical tells the painful (and morally queasy) love story of Julie Jordan (Joanna Riding) and her wife-beating husband, ex-fairground barker Billy Bigelow (Michael Hayden), an insecure, self- lacerating tough who kills himself for shame when caught staging a hold-up to get money for the child they are expecting. The mill girls and fishermen of a New England coastal village provide the chorus to this tale, their mood of holiday release in touching contrast to the careworn central couple. To my mind, this realistic context fails to come properly alive, despite the horny exuberance of Kenneth MacMillan's choreography for 'June is Bustin' Out All Over' and despite the presence of Patricia Routledge, who bounces about like some game old gym-mistress as she hymns nature's naughty rampancy.

Badly weakening any sense of the down-to-earth, though, is Bob Crowley's pretty design which has a sterile, aestheticised toy-town feel. Furthermore, all the sets are enclosed in a big celestial-blue box which needlessly dunks the proceedings in the heavenly well before the musical actually travels up there with the dead Billy in Act Two. Other-worldiness on earth reaches a miraculous peak at the end of Act One when the singing cast take to red rowing boats and move off for the island- clambake without oars.

Michael Hayden is excellent as the hero, letting us see in his superb performance of 'Billy's Soliliquy' flashes of the vulnerability and low self-esteem that make impending fatherhood both another incitement to compensating macho display and a deep worry to him. Joanna Riding is affecting, too, and in lovely voice but, from the start, her sad, unillusioned expression seems to acknowledge her fate as a battered wife.

'It's possible for someone to hit you, hit you hard and it not hurt,' she says, a sentiment you wouldn't want too many people to believe. Any real attempt to probe this character, though, is thwarted by the musical's refusal to explore in song, the sort of rows that lead Billy to violence. We get very edited highlights of the relationship and this results in what feels like a gaping hole in the often glorious score - a score doubly pleasurable to listen to here, undistorted by amplification.

Janie Dee, who was the best thing about Sophisticated Ladies, is on great form in this, too, as the heroine's bosom friend, Carrie. Her good humour and impish spirit cut straight through the sometimes restrictive atmosphere of artistic refinement.

Carousel continues at the National. Box office: 071 928 2252.