THEATRE / Tales from the junkyard: Paul Taylor and Edward Seckerson double-take on Pete Townshend's The Iron Man

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So eat your heart out Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Tin Man and every other clump of animated hardware that has starred in a children's musical. The Iron Man would have you all for breakfast, and I mean that quite literally. 'I eat heavy metal / I chew limousines,' sings the cannibalistic junkyard giant in Pete Townshend's new 'rock opera' version of Ted Hughes's popular fairytales. In the more banally worthy patches of this earnestly right-on show, I found myself fantasising sick confrontations for our hero (the Iron Man discovered snacking off the hubcabs of 'Genevieve', say), anything rather than see him converted into an icon of ecological soundness by a bunch of self-righteous kids.

The show certainly has a terrific appearance, with a weird scrapyard design by Shelagh Keegan that makes the set for Cats look like a riot of anal orderliness. And children will love the vast moving model of the Iron Man, a rusty bricolage behemoth whose clanking limbs are pulled by chains. There's no denying either that the youthful cast, led by the feathery falsetto of Anthony Barclay's excellent Hogarth, sing with a fervour that leaves you wishing they had something more provocative than standard-issue uplift to convey.

'What we need is a brand-new year' - what the score needs, though, is a few non-second-hand ideas. The story isn't dramatised at all clearly, but it seems to boil down to that moral without which no musical is complete these days: we have to confront our fears and take them on board and then, well, we'll grow as people, which will be nice not just for us but for the planet. To illustrate this controversial point, Josette Bushell-Mingo's raunchy bat-winged Star Spirit is hoisted up to the sun and doesn't melt in the fire because she faces her desire and comes back a warmer and wiser (and tedious) figure. Way before the end, I was suffering from metal fatigue. PT

THE OLD rocker hits rock-bottom. But is this eco-Godspell-without-attitude really the best that Pete Townshend has left in him? It cannot be. Whatever happened to the power-ditties, the insidiously memorable refrains, the soaring anthems of Tommy and Quadrophenia?

The Iron Man begins with a precious moment or two of promise, a lamenting solo cello emerging from the synthesiser sound-base, a wide-ranging recitative sung with vision by the excellent Anthony Barclay. But then on comes the teen-rock, trawled from some Seventies repository, blithely jumping the line between simple and trite.

Time was when Townshend could perform tiny miracles with little or nothing at all. Not here. 'Don't be afraid of the night' was a haunting refrain longing to be a song; 'When eyes meet in silence' touched something and then lost it. Sometimes the vocal range was extended in interesting ways, sometimes the recitatives proved more ambitious than the songs. The Star Spirit enjoyed some almost baroque elaborations late in the show: more's the pity that Josette Bushell-Mingo had problems pitching them.

The Iron Man's musical vision is frankly myopic: a few shining moments and feeble half-hours. At one point, a familiar ostinato seemed to promise the title song of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. No such luck. Call the scrap-metal dealer. ES

'The Iron Man' continues at the Young Vic, 66 The Cut, London SE1 (071-928 6363) to 12 February

(Photograph omitted)