THEATRE / Would you credit it?: Paul Taylor reviews Moll Flanders with Josie Lawrence at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith

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The Independent Culture
'I'VE been through Reno, / I've been through Beverly Hills, / And I'm here. / Reefers and vino, / Rest cures, religion and pills, / And I'm here': so sings Sondheim's battle-scarred but unsinkable survivor in Follies, running through a witty litany of things she's had to rise above. Compared with Moll Flanders, though, this dame hasn't lived.

Indeed, surveying the career from which Defoe's doughty survivor manages to emerge in one piece makes you feel relieved, for her sake, that they weren't so big on form-filling in those days. Born in Newgate Prison, she's five times married (once to her own brother), 12 years a whore, 12 a thief, eight years a transported felon in Virgina, and eventually a wealthy penitent.

Living under the constant threat of poverty and imprisonment, she also represents the cunningly adaptive spirit of laissez-faire resilience. The only resource of women in her position was themselves andMoll is not slow to exploit this. In a way that complicates the distinction between, say, wife and whore, or tradesman and thief, hers is a picaresque career of creative self-help.

It's the sort of material Brecht and Weill could have got their teeth in to. Bite, though, is a somewhat fluctuating feature of the musical version now to be seen in Peter James's enjoyable production at the Lyric, Hammersmith. Defoe's novel presents itself as the cleaned-up memoirs of Moll looking back on her life in old age; Claire Luckham's adaptation gets rid of any distorting filter and offers direct action interspersed by the 28 musical numbers that George Stiles has based on those contemporary folk tunes ('Over the Hills and far away', 'Lillibullero') employed by Gay in another artistic product of the 1720s, The Beggar's Opera.

Set to such airs, Paul Leigh's adroitly droll lyrics keep underlining the way the language of commerce (terms such as credit, trust, interest, etc) puts its taint on talk of other human dealings. Some of the characters carry this to bizarre lengths. As when one of Moll's suitors makes the word 'deposit' decidedly sticky to the touch: 'You'll never know how much I chafe / To place a deposit in your face', he croons.

Brought to life by an effervescent company, who are mostly in excellent voice, James's production tries to get the best of both worlds, mingling saucy romp with darker social criticism. Sometimes, though, these impulses just conflict. In the scene of Moll's begetting and birth, the musical introduces harsher details than are in the novel.

In order to get her death sentence commuted to transportation, the mother has to pay a man to make her pregnant. But as acted here, the joky comments and behaviour of the man who 'obliges her' diffuses rather than deepens a sense of the woman's degradation. It's possible, too, that the excellent Josie Lawrence, who has no problem convincing you of Moll's allure when young, should be helped to show more signs of age when our heroine has supposedly lost her beauty and turned to thieving. In these episodes, the social comment would stick harder coming from someone who looked superannuated rather than like an anachronistic advertisement for HRT.

Sally Crabb's witty caricatural designs move the proceedings fluently and with economic flamboyance through a host of settings: the marble spa at Bath, for instance, scene of a naughty new angle on gold-digging (the coins are in the crotch flap of a bathing-suit), converts in a trice to the couple's marriage bed. A shame they have gone for a cliched hopeful ending with Moll seen sailing off for America, presumably already booked for a guest spot on Oprah.

'Moll Flanders' continues at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith (Box office: 081-741 2311).