THEATRE: So limp they named it twice

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The Independent Culture
Romance, Romance

Gielgud Theatre, London

On the face of it, the arrival of gives us several reasons to be cheerful. For a start, it's the first West End transfer of a production from the enterprising Bridewell Theatre, which has been presenting revivals of such neglected classic musicals as Damn Yankees and On the Twentieth Century. Second, at a time when musicals are growing ever larger - Disney's Beauty and the Beast has a staggering 69 people working backstage, not counting the cast and musicians - it's a small- scale show with a cast of just six. In common with Lloyd Webber's recent By Jeeves, it eschews the through-sung form in favour of the book musical, with discrete songs and scenes. In fact, is not one, but two musicals with book and lyrics by Barry Harman and music by Keith Herrmann, drawn from an Arthur Schnitzler short story and a play by Jules Renard, both written at the turn of the century and linked by the role of (you guessed it) romance.

"It's operetta, pure operetta," cries one character at the end of the first act. If only it were. The Merry Widow or even The Count of Luxembourg look like complex dramatic masterpieces against this paper-thin scenario about two rich people who disguise themselves as simple folk in order to be loved for themselves. Mark Adams strives manfully to inject charm into the proceedings and Caroline O'Connor does a hyperactive mittel-European Felicity Kendal, all twee affectations and pert mannerisms. Neither of them is helped by the sketchy set, which leaves them stranded, and "A Rustic Country Inn" is the only lyric with the requisite wit and atmosphere to build character or drama.

Sondheim's name has been invoked to describe the tone of the stronger second half, but it takes more than four neurotic people singing in a room to reach that level. The energetic score, mainly keyboards, reeds, percussion and bass, is more reminiscent of Baby and Starting Here, Starting Now by Maltby and Shire, although the opening number sounds a little like "The Music and the Mirror" from A Chorus Line.

The premise is a Private Lives-style husband / wife swap, set one summer in a house in the Hamptons, but despite hardworking performances, it's let down by the writing, which only momentarily digs deep, and limp direction that leaves the jilted partners literally standing about like lemons. O'Connor sings her heart out, almost convincing you that the material needs to be sung, but she's let down by lyrics which rhyme "relaxing to the nth degree" with "a glass of chablis" while the rousing four-part finale asks the cast to sing repeatedly about cherishing "romantic no- otions". You try singing those words romantically.

The original New York production won four Outer Critics Circle Awards. On the strength of this well-intentioned revival, I'd hazard a guess that the competition that year was pretty thin.

Gielgud Theatre, London W1. Booking to 31 May (0171-494 5065)

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