THEATRE / Mauling Moliere: School for wives - Royal Lyceum Theatre

NEVER mind such recondite questions as how long is a piece of string; turn your attention instead to the matter of how elastic is a work of theatre? This question is unavoidable for patrons of the Lyceum at the moment - the billboards outside proclaim a production of the subtle comedy by Moliere on man's versatile inhumanity to woman, the guile of the insecure male psyche in shaping her in his image and taste, and the final triumphant revenge of youth and nature over age and nurture. Inside, however, when the curtains are parted, two stoutish middle-aged gents, with the manners and demeanour of old time music hall entertainers, take a bow and seat themselves at pianos in the orchestra pit.

At the opening of the second act, one of these gentlemen leads a spot of community singing in 'Daisy, Daisy', stretching the elasticity of the play so taut it snaps. And what is the coherence in having the protagonist, Arnold, speak lines worthy of an especially straitlaced elder of the Kirk in tones of a spiv who finds himself in charge of variety hall jollifications?

Between them, adapter Neil Bartlett and director Ian Wooldridge have engineered a production that is wholly at odds with the text, despite endless energy and even a range of strong performances. The inspiration involved will no doubt provide a good night out for those who want a panto romp and care nothing for the dilemmas, the pathos, or even the comedy of the original.

The characters are reduced to a gallery of bizarre grotesques who cavort and giggle under a grandiose set of cardboard drapes, with a painted backcloth featuring some of Edinburgh's classical monuments surrounding a Georgian doorway from the New Town. Tony Cownie (Alan) and Pauline Knowles (Georgette) tumble and grimace like the servants from a children's show, while Sharon Small as Arnold's future wife Agnes is allowed to bring to the character only the sugary sentiments of a gormless Cinderella.

Her suitor Horace (Paul Nivison) is a flannelled fool with the nous of a Bertie Wooster, and that leaves John Bett, as Arnold, stranded in the incongruous role of Master of Ceremonies. In that position, he orchestrates the piece, entering to the strains of a My Fair Lady number, executing a soft-shoe shuffle, exiting to a Harry Lauder refrain and all the time radiating the plastic charm of a thorough professional whose only care is to keep the punters giggling. The demands of that stance do not allow him to investigate the uncertainties or the misogyny of the role Moliere created.

Presumably Neil Bartlett's translation was in the Queen's English, but it has been ludicrously Scottified for comic effect by the insertion of the odd word in Lallans of a style your douce Edinburgh bourgeoise would never have employed. The production does as little for the use of Scots as it does for poor old Moliere.

Continues to 26 Sept. Box office: 031-229 9697