Theatre: Kind Hearts and Coronets Palace Theatre,Watford

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The Independent Culture
Like its hero, the first ever theatrical adaptation of Kind Hearts and Coronets shows an early interest in its own ancestry. The curtain rises to reveal a television showing the scene from Robert Hamer's Ealing Comedy in which the hangman peeks into the cell of Louis Mazzini, Duke of Chalfont and serial killer, on the eve of his execution. On stage, Mazzini silences the television with a flick of the remote control. "Tonight, for the first time," he says, "I can tell my own story."

That tale begins not with Hamer's comedy, but with Roy Horniman's 1907 novel, in which the hero (or, rather, villain) was a half-Jewish man called Israel Rank. When the film was made in 1949, Rank became the half-Italian Mazzini, both to avoid offending Jewish feeling and to avoid libelling rival film-producer J Arthur Rank. What the director of this production, Giles Croft, has tried to do is mix the melodrama and the genteel comedy and watch the sparks fly. "I have," he writes in the programme note, "in large part, derived the lover from the film, whilst the murderer is ... drawn from the novel."

In the play's opening scenes, the most obvious departure from the movie comes in the character of Mazzini, the Clapham shopworker who murders his way through his relations, the D'Ascoynes, in order to become an aristocrat. Dennis Price played him on screen as a rogueish charmer. Simon Coury (though he bears a passing resemblance to Price) has stilled some of that twinkle. His Louis is a darker, less charming figure, initially touched by guilt but better able to repress it with each new killing.

It's neither a bad idea (attempting to reach into the psychology of the killer) nor a bad performance, and yet it sits uneasily with some of the others. No one seems quite sure which theatrical universe they are inhabiting. As Mazzini's mistress Sibella, Sara Markland is less girlishly husky than Joan Greenwood, but hers is still essentially a comic turn. Jamie Newall, who follows in the footsteps of Alec Guinness, portraying all six of the D'Ascoynes, seems a touch restrained at times, as though unsure of how boisterously farcical he's allowed to be - although you have to admire some of his transformations, like the moment he descends on a lift as young dandy only to ascend seconds later as an elderly banker. Croft moves the action along at a funereal pace (if you'll pardon the pun), even drawing attention to the fact with the solemn ticking of a grandfather clock.

Structurally, also, there is a feeling that two into one won't go. The presence of a third woman, the governess Anne Lynn, in Mazzini's life adds an odd psychological twist to proceedings. It hints at a strange link between Louis' serial-killing and his serial-adultery. But her role in the denouement makes a nonsense of some of the scenes between Louis, Sibella and Sibella's husband Lionel.

Kind hearts, filled with fond memories, will still find much to delight in here. Cooler temperaments may prefer a trip to the video store.

To 22 Feb. Booking: 01293 225671