Theatre: Tosh of the D'Urbervilles

TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES SAVOY THEATRE LONDON

HARDY'S TESS as a big-budget musical? Why ever not? Look at what that nice Cliff Richard did as Heathcliff in the staged Wuthering Heights. Precisely.

From the opening moments, it is depressingly obvious that this through- sung version of Thomas Hardy's novel of doomed love and sexual double standards isn't even going to reach that level of badness.

Instead of telling the story sequentially, following the book Tess of the D'Urbervilles, this musical adaptation (by the show's director, Karen Louise Hebden) begins about halfway through at a point when the pivotal events in the heroine's life - the rape by her supposed cousin, Alec, and the birth and death of her bastard child - have already occurred and Tess is seeking work at a distant dairy farm.

So the musical rigs itself a fraudulently upbeat start, with a May Day festival set against one of those sunset skies that can turn four different colours in the course of a song and which here should be permanently puce with shame.

All the frolicsome dairy maids have taken a shine to dishy Angel Clare whose first line to the farmer, if my ears weren't deceiving me, was "I need more than luck with my milking technique". Believe me, by this stage, it was not butter that was churning on our side of the footlights.

The heroine's horrid experiences to this point are told in flashbacks enacted by a balletic, mute younger self and heralded by ludicrously doom- laden thunder and lightning effects. Each time, in a style that convinced this viewer at least that there can be no god up there, Poppy Tierney's darkly beautiful, strong-voiced but inexpressive Tess stops to wonder: "Who is spinning the wheel?/Is it Old Chance or somebody's game?/How can I make it stop/So that my world stays the same?"

Relying, I suppose, on the fact that most of its target audience will not have read the book, this musical replaces the novel's subtle exploration of the effects of having a secret, shameful in the society of the time, with the crude melodrama of gradual revelation.

And the attempts to find stage equivalents for the novel's plot twists are often risible. Whereas in the book Tess's confessional letter to Angel never reaches him because it gets accidentally thrust under a mat near his door, here he fails to read it because he seems to be that rare kind of man who never checks his jacket pockets.

Justin Fleming's inept lyrics are full of duff rhymes ("written" and "hidden") and deathless couplets such as "But the wife that I marry must know how to farm/She must share my new life and be my right arm". As the musical counterpart to Esperanto or even a Big Mac, Stephen Edwards's music surges from stupefying vapidity to overblown generalised emotion.

This empty costume show represents everything to which another rags to riches tale, Spend, Spend, Spend - the musical about Sixties pools winner Viv Nicholson - with its wit, modern setting and genuine sense of English locality, is such a refreshing and necessary contrast.

At the close of the novel, after the heroine has been hanged, Hardy comments that the President of the Immortals had now ended his sport with Tess. What the President of the Immortals did to her was a full body massage and a glamorous makeover compared to the travesty inflicted on her here.

Booking to 1 April, 0171-836 8888. A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper

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