Theatre: The joint was swimming

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Song of Singapore Minerva Theatre, Chichester IN THE blazered audiences at Chichester it's not often you see a man wearing a sarong. But the night I was there a young guy was intrepidly swathed in one, a la David Beckham, to get into the mood for Song of Singapore. I myself quickly came to the conclusion that a Singapore sling or three might have been better preparation for this off-Broadway musical, in whose honour the Minerva Theatre has been converted into Freddy's dingy downtown cabaret venue - replete with Chinese lanterns, paper dragons, leopard- skin bar stools, fake palms, and tables where punters can sit and drink and, if male, run the pleasurable risk of being picked on to dance by Issy van Randwyck.

Directed by Roger Redfarn, the piece is set in 1941, with the enemy Japanese poised to invade. Is it going to be another Privates on Parade or Cabaret, taking the temperature of the period through its microcosmic showbiz milieu? Well, if only. The programme goes to the trouble of printing extracts from books about Singapore and first impressions of the place by soldiers. An Australian officer recalls arriving in 1941 and being amazed by the incongruity between the military preparation and the persisting glamorous hedonism among the civilians: "Either we were crazy, or they were crazy." His would be an intriguing perspective from which to stage a wartime Singapore musical. But the programme material is only marginally more relevant to the show than an essay on the political climate of medieval Nottingham would be to the panto version of Robin Hood.

The credits attribute the book to no fewer than five people; you can scarcely believe it took even one to construct this scanty tissue of antique gags ("Hey, do you know there's a dead man here?" "Yeh, it's in B flat"; hoary dumb-blonde-isms ("I shall be back to catch your vocal stylings"; "You can hear me singing, too") and to fabricate a plot (involving sacred Chinese gems that have gone AWOL, an amnesiac saloon singer, twin Hindu brothers, a bent English inspector and an American jazz band) that all but deifies the red-herring. This is the kind of show that sets out to be silly, and you'll either be disarmed by its resolute daftness or feel it is undemanding to an extent that makes it... er... quite demanding.

Issy van Randwyck's smile is so voraciously huge, you fear that at any moment it will turn her face inside out. She and the winningly characterful band (fronted by Elio Pace performing a droll send-up of a blind jazz pianist) certainly get the joint swimming, though with some pretty undistinctive period pastiches. A song such as "I Miss My Home In Haarlem" has a gentle dottiness, as does "Harbour of Love", the police inspector's Porteresque litany of piscine mating rituals. But, in general, there's more strenuousness than finesse in a score encompassing everything from wild scat to bluesy reflectiveness.

Instead of fleeing from the Japs at the end, the cast return to give us a far from deafeningly demanded encore. But then, the situation throughout is just an excuse for some cabaret. `Song of Singapore' continues until 12 September (box office 01243 781312)