THEATRE / Worth seeing: Paul Taylor on Ken Hill's entertaining version of The Invisible Man

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The Independent Culture
WHEN I first read The Invisible Man as a child, the detail that appealed most to my warped imagination was the idea that any food that the hero consumed while in his dematerialised state would be grotesquely visible to others. Ever since, I've had a hankering to see what masticated meat and two veg looks like suspended in mid-air. This production may not dish up such a sickly sight (indeed, when the unseen one polishes off a glass of milk the liquid just vanishes) but by way of compensation there's a hell of a lot of free-floating ham in Ken Hill's enjoyably silly tongue-in-cheek adaptation of H G Wells's novel.

Transferred to the West End from the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, where it has had a couple of highly successful runs, this version presents the story of 'The 'ideous 'appenings at Iping' as a dramatic feature on the bill of a music-hall, replete with a testy, alliterating MC, Frieda and her Follies and an orchestra in the pit for the doomy atmospherics. Narrating the tale is the little tramp (Brian Murphy) who becomes the hero's Sancho Panza and goes on, Wells reports in an epilogue, to earn a crust by his public recountings of the sorry affair.

It might seem a bit of a cheat to prop up the entire piece between a pair of gigantic inverted commas in this way. Or, to swap metaphors, the tone noticeably never strays too far away from the safety-net of spoof. But the cast's collusion with the audience has a high-spirited, uncynical engagingness, and as for the awful jokes, well, if they gave you a pound for each time you said 'ouch' inwardly, you'd come close to affording, ooh, a seat in the Royal Opera House stalls.

From a drawer that seems to go bananas and rifle itself, to the landlady's cleavage that jerks up and down as though it's suddenly developed a mind of its own ('Is this the Shape of Things to Come?' someone asks), Paul Kieve's special effects are a witty delight and sometimes genuinely baffling. When the hero unwraps his head bandage to reveal nothingness, he further shocks the assembled Ipingites with the cigarette that flies up to invisible lips and glows with an eerie insouciance as he takes a drag on it.

With buffoonish bobbies trying to cling on to straining, disembodied gloves or to keep a tight grip on handcuffs clamped to tugging vacancy, the production gets a lot of comic mileage in the affront an only-visible-when-clothed hero offers to orthodox arrest procedures. But the love-interest added here, in the shape of a Scots schoolmistress of advanced views, is too clumsily handled (and too amenable to being sent up) to complicate our response to Wells's ambivalent creation. He's seen in this version as a paradox: an anti-establishment social reformer who creates a dictatorial reign of terror; an outsider-genius who wanted to be noticed but has made himself unnoticeable. Such ideas and feelings are granted only a brisk breathing-space, however; it's as a funny, good-natured romp that this Invisible Man is a conspicuous success.

'The Invisible Man' is at the Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2 (071-836 9987)