Theatre The Aspern Papers Wyndhams Theatre, London

"What are you up to?" What indeed? Biographical hound and literary scholar Henry Jarvis has inveigled the suspicious, resplendently dressed Mrs Prest into gaining entrance to the shuttered Venetian home of the sequestered Misses Bordereau and she and we want to know why.

Obligingly, the anti-hero explains the dastardly task at hand. Jarvis is obsessed with the poet Jeffrey Aspern, whom he believes to have been in love with the now nearly 100-year-old Miss Havisham-like Juliana. Furthermore, he knows she has letters and papers attesting to their relationship, which he will go to any lengths to acquire. Mrs Prest comes up with the idea to begin the plan of attack. "Simply make them take you in on the footing of a lodger." As she leaves, she remarks that he will have to cope with her niece "of minor antiquity". His reply that he will smooth away that difficulty by making love to her is met with laughter and the warning, "Wait till you see her!"

The stage is thus set for Michael Redgrave's adaptation, an old-fashioned cross between a costume drama and a literary suspense story, a seemingly ideal confection to entice the matinee crowds at the very least. But they, and everyone else for that matter, have been short-changed. Henry James's novella works through the inexorable accretion of detail, a succession of minor hurdles overcome in a darkly delicious but painfully slow race against time. This kind of stretched tension is better suited to the page than the stage, but in the theatre you can bring out the suppressed passion and drama of the momentous meetings. That, however, is precisely what Auriol Smith's limp production fails to do.

When Jarvis gambles on his fate by letting the niece into his secret, the stakes are so low he might as well be discussing the price of Venetian glass. Daniel J Travanti (best known as Furillo from Hill Street Blues) has told us, "There's no baseness I wouldn't commit for Jeffrey Aspern's sake", and his hawkish profile bodes well; but he never convinces us of his passion for literature or the urgency of his quest, let alone the changing emotions beneath his insinuating demeanour. Presented with the trunk full of papers, he admonishes his manservant for stealing and without missing a beat wisecracks, "Is it locked?" A moment that should speak volumes about guilt, doubt and excitement is thrown away for a cheap laugh.

Hannah Gordon is made to look suitably dowdy, but her fractured, girlish character-voice is one-dimensional, especially odd from an actress so famous for her voice-over work. She is affecting at the bittersweet denouement but the scene is so flat that there's little for her to play off.

Likewise, the potentially thrilling horror of Juliana's discovery of Jarvis's duplicity is clumsily staged. It's no fault of Moira Lister, who, despite spending the evening in a wheelchair, alone picks up the pace. Her tough vigour shines through this sadly insipid affair.

n Booking, to 14 September: 0171-369 1736

DAVID BENEDICT

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