THEATRE / Light-weight at the end of the tunnel: Jeffrey Wainwright on The Count of Monte Cristo in Manchester

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The Independent Culture
Why, look at one of them prisoners in the bottom dungeon of the Castle Deef, in the harbor of Marseilles, that dug himself out that way; how long was he at it, you reckon?'

'I don't know. A month and a half?'

'Thirty-seven year - and he come out in China.' '

TOM Sawyer's recollection of Dumas' classic is typically faulty, but there must have been times when the director, Braham Murray, thought he'd been digging for at least this long to get James Maxwell and Jonathan Hackett's two-part The Count of Monte Cristo on to the stage of Manchester's Royal Exchange. So now he has tunnelled into the light, where has he emerged?

Well, as Tom says, 'It's gaudy.' The scenes are changed by masked tumblers, the omnipresent machinists of the tale-within-a-tale, pirouetting to leave a crucial letter in place, or assembling an opera house with their baroque but fleet artistry. Our hero somersaults in slow-motion from a cliff into linen billows below. He arrives on Monte Cristo in a magical haze - the best moment of Vince Herbert's fine lighting - and the treasure is revealed by an explosion that shatters the earth. Simon Higlett's designs also offer a firework display, a Chinese dragon and more, and still more.

Contending against these elements is David Threlfall as Edmond Dantes - a part which takes him from sunny youth to vampiric avenger capable of protean disguise. It's an opportunity for virtuosity he exploits to the full - as when he gambols like an ecstatic chimp on finding the treasure. His bucktoothed English milord is a gem.

There are several good performances around him. James Saxon embodies the cupidity of the banker Danglars, and the dementia of the prosecutor Villefort stammers chillingly in Simon Tyrrell's mouth. Jonathan Weir steals scene after scene as the epicene rascal Cavalcanti.

So, as Huck Finn says, the show's 'worth 15 of mine for style'. Still, it's hard not to share Huck's fundamental scepticism: is it worth the bother? A show so long needs emotional variety, which can't be made up for by effects. It may be 'romantical' enough for Tom Sawyer, but the story lacks the sentimental pull and humour of, say, Dickens, or, indeed, Twain himself.

In rep to 6 Aug (061-833 9833)

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