THEATRE: Old Wicked Songs; Gielgud Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
"Kvestion, always kvestion," says the Viennese professor of voice in Old Wicked Songs. One thing you quickly start to kvestion, watching Jon Marans's play, is Bob Hoskins' judgement in actively volunteering to star in this slick, formulaic slab of laugh-a-little-weep-a-little sentimentality. True, the evening has its riveting aspects. Vot, Bob Hoskins as an eccentric Viennese intellectual? To get some idea of the delectable dissonances this sets up, you'd have to imagine, well, Dr Ruth Westheimer, the pocket-sized middle-European sex expert, playing Joan Littlewood.

It says a lot for Hoskins' likeability as a performer that he carries the audience through this barrier. He cannot, however, persuade you that the play, which is the kind of schmaltzy personal-growth saga that passes for profundity on Off-Broadway, has anything but a trompe-l'oeil depth. English hackles may start to rise early on in the piece when the Hoskins character discourses on why some countries have the mixture of sadness and joy in their cultural temperament that makes for great music. It's all a question of having been invaded and oppressed. Britain, we learn, only has Britten because it has not been invaded since Roman times. This would, you feel, come as news to William the Conqueror and cause a certain commotion in the Viking camp.

The piece is a two-hander which shows the developing relationship between the lonely, suicidal professor and his new pupil, Stephen Hoffman (James Callis), an arrogant preppy young American who has prematurely burnt out as a world-renowned concert pianist. Why is he working, at first extremely reluctantly, with a teacher of voice? We gather that his main professor wants him to learn a releasing humility and humanity by being thrown into this uncomfortable, unfamiliar position. Rather as you might train someone to be a lord by requiring him to serve a three-month sentence as a valet. The songs the pair study are from the Schumann Dichterliebe cycle and these pieces about loss and renewal are supposed to reflect obliquely the present situation. The correspondences are sometimes pretty contrived and although, in Elijah Moshinsky's production, the sound appears miraculously to be coming from the on-stage piano, it doesn't help that Stephen's singing voice does not improve, as it is alleged. And, as for his human amelioration, this feels riddled with phoniness.

Apparently, Stephen's Jewish dad has paid for the Austrian course, provided his son visits Dachau. You'd have thought that Stephen, as an ex-maestro, would be sufficiently rolling in wealth not to need Pop's dollars but, anyway, he goes and comes back seething with resentment at Austria's undenazified present, as witnessed by the election of Waldheim to the presidency during his stay. The professor's brusque references to "a bunch of dead Jews" never fool you in the slightest and you brace yourself for the inevitable moment when he will reveal that he is a holocaust survivor.

Mr Callis, an extraordinarily handsome newcomer, is very good at aspects of Stephen. He gets to a tee that rather queeny bridling of beautiful straight men who imagine that all other men are out to pounce on them. But the way he overmilks the suffering indignation of Stephen in post- Dachau mode is symptomatic of a play that is caught up in a contradiction. On the one hand, it preaches that emotion must be earned and that you can't suddenly become a zealous, born-again Jew; on the other, it is itself awash with unearned emotion. The greatest playwright attacker of post- war Austria is Austrian, the prodigious and now-deceased Thomas Bernhard. How one would have longed to read his review of this.

To 18 Jan. Booking: 0171-494 5065.

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