THEATRE Lady Chatterley's Lover, The Cockpit, London

So did the earth move? Adrian Turpin watches the first adaptation of DH Lawrence's controversial novel to hit the London stage since 1961
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The Independent Culture
H ard cases make bad law. And, if Lady Chatterley's Lover is anything to go by, bad books make good law. Without the obscenity trial of 1960, the story of Connie Chatterley's passion for the gamekeeper Mellors would be just another minor DH Lawrence novel, wedged on academics' bookshelves between Aaron's Rod and The Trespasser, and probably unopened since 1963 (or whenever else it was that sexual intercourse began). The plot is paper thin, the language priapically bloated, and the characters little more than ciphers for the author's kooky quasi-religious beliefs about sex and class. The question Britain's first stage adaptation of the novel for 35 years begs isn't "Why wait so long?" but "Why bother at all?"

Well, it must have some appeal. Fusion Theatre's production ran five months in Toronto, before reaching the Cockpit. Why? A cynic might suggest the hearty on-stage nudity (the promise of which has been shamelessly used to hype the show) and the novel's totemic fame. That, though, would be unfair. This is, for the most part, a well-cast, well-written, well- directed production. Marshall Gould's adaptation wisely avoids the temptation to add its own layer of fantasy and phantasmagoria Ken Russell-style on to the original. The scenes are short to the point of being staccato. Connie's marriage, the outbreak of war, Sir Clifford Chatterley's confinement to a wheelchair are done with in the first 10 minutes. By the time Mellors enters, strolling in the woods with his gun, proceedings already have a certain pace to them.

Poor Mellors. Or rather, the poor actor playing him, who must cope with some of the silliest dialogue known to English literature. Anyone who can say, "We fucked a flame into being and for me it is the only thing on Earth", without making an audience snigger, probably justifies the admission fee on his own. Peter Tate manages this and more. At first I had my doubts, when he seemed not so much noble savage as plain noble, too posh for a collier's son. But you soon warm to him, and after a while Mellors's self-conscious switches between Derby dialect and King's English seem utterly natural, as does the character's unlikely blend of tenderness and animal sensuality.

Perhaps there aren't too many surprises or revelations, but there is one splendid scene in which Mrs Bolton, the village woman who tends Clifford (an excellent Carolyn Jones), plays chess with him, while Mellors seduces Connie. It's genuinely odd. Tristan and Isolde play chess in the legend, as do Ferdinand and Miranda in The Tempest. But here the young lovers are replaced by an impotent aristocratic and a woman who acts like his nanny. The other early, semi-clothed love scenes could benefit from a touch more of this strangeness. Only once the clothes come off do sparks finally fly, and the sex itself is surprisingly watchable: a vast improvement on Hollywood's ice-cube and baby-oil variety, even if it does have Lawrence's coal-smudged fingerprints all over it.

To 4 May. The Cockpit, London NW8 (0171-402 5081)