Theatre: The Phantom lives on

Not the First Night
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The Independent Culture
The Phantom of the Opera

Her Majesty's Theatre, London

Andrew Lloyd Webber's homebrand variety of Gaston Leroux's 1911 horror story was unmasked on 9 October 1986, practically sharing The Independent's birthday. There was never any doubt as to which would be the biggest money- spinner.

That has been such a success is part of the secret of its staying power, in the self-perpetuating way of blockbuster musicals. But whereas many long-runners fall unnoticed into disrepair, replacement casts succumbing to boredom and cynicism, the machinery of this mini-industry is kept well oiled and supervised. You could probably come to any performance and get much the same product, because Phantom can't afford to deviate from its own idea of bland perfection.

This is the show that smugly bolsters itself by orchestrating mini-fiascos and, in the twisted shape of the phantom, championing the underdog. The Paris Opera House of 1881, resplendently suggested in the tasselled drapes and fake-rococo proscenium arch of Maria Bjornson's set-design, is the scene of countless disruptions and botches, as the deformed composer exerts his murderous influence on affairs in his bid for control of Christine, the young soprano-ballerina with whom has fallen in love.

For all the period extravagance and puffs of magic, Lloyd Webber wants the trickery to point up, rather than clutter up, the work's pure heart. Why else would he open with a set-piece of operatic overkill, the first of many? The rehearsal of Chalumeau's Hannibal is a riot of kitsch Carthaginian dancing girls, swivelling their hips beside a jewel-encrusted elephant. Like the phantom, who issues scathing notes to the company, Lloyd Webber and his team have found a way of showing their talents in the most favourable light; the prospect of an artistic shambles is continually dangled before you, then whisked away.

And you almost believe it's the monumental achievement it thinks it is: because songs like "Think of Me" and "The Music of the Night" are highly hummable even though the words are evanescent ("I've been ... to a world where/daylight dissolves into darkness" - oh, really?). And because the visuals (the phantom's candlebra-lit underground lair in particular) have clout. If only the leads, able singers that they are, didn't look so gravely serious, you might not realise that, underneath it all, there's nothing particularly demanding, emotionally or otherwise.

Mike Sterling, who now plays Raoul, the dashing rival for Christine's affections, strains so hard for expressions of concerned love that he looks as if he has ruptured himself. Peter Cousens undergoes the painful three-hour Elephant Man make-up in vain - his swollen lips are upstaged by his own overblown movements. Shona Lindsay, as Christine, torn between the psychological pulls of her dead father, lover and the master of her dreams, has anguish all the way.

But there is The Wizard of Oz here, as well as Beauty and the Beast. You don't have to have supernatural powers to guess that Christine has about as much long-term interest in the ugly composer as Lloyd Webber has in letting failure triumph.

Booking: 0171 494 5400.

Dominic Cavendish