WEST END / Not only, smut also: Paul Taylor on Lust, Bob Carlton's full bed-and-bawd musical of Wycherley's The Country Wife

LUST: has there been a title so succinctly uncryptic since Mae West called her first stage play Sex? But then again, if you make a point of naming your leading character Horner - as Wycherley did in The Country Wife (the Restoration comedy on which this new Heather Brothers' musical is based) - you aren't exactly raising too many hopes of an evening of quiet prayer and petits pois. Strictly speaking, the show at the Haymarket is called Lust - circa 1661, but this prudish addition has been demanded, apparently, by the theatre's board of governors. Is this supposed to be some sort of then-and-now safe sex warning? At all events, both titles are misleading: the piece would be better dubbed Smut - circa 1972.

True to form for this sort of British musical, Lust takes Wycherley's spirited but unsettling and ultimately nihilistic comedy and turns it into a saucy, near-the-knuckle romp. Within those limits, the piece has some effective moments, and Bob Carlton's production has a sparky, engaging (if uneven) cast who throw themselves vivaciously into what I fear we can only describe as 'good clean filth'. Though the wicked don't get their just deserts at the end of the play, you feel that Wycherley's vision includes a clear sense of evil; this musical version may be more explicitly bawdy (caught by her husband as she is about to fellate the hero, Judith Paris's excellent Lady Fidget pretends to be dressing his wounds), but it can't really conceive of anything worse than naughtiness.

The story revolves round the false rumour put about by the lecherous Horner (Denis Lawson) that, as a result of the pox, he has had to be castrated. As proof, his sidekick the Quack (Paul Leonard) carries about a jar of pickled walnuts masquerading as his client's balls. Far from not being able to get it up, Horner has problems keeping it down and, since as a pretend-eunuch he is much in demand now to chaperon other men's wives, the deceit seems to be the perfect cover for round-the-clock rutting. Some of the best moments in the eclectic and not very memorable score (traditional-sounding airs cheek by jowl with pop pastiche, folk-rock jammed alongside mock-opera) are also the crudest, showing Horner's horny desire almost giving the game away in public.

Confronted, say, by a maid's upended bum, his fingers start twitching like divining rods and, to restrain himself, he has to sing a feverishly jolly song about his new-found delight in non-sexual pursuits such as riding to hounds and milking heifers. But the idiotically mounting pace of the ditty, the rush of rhyming double entendres towards the end suggest that it is country matters of a different sort he has on his mind. Later, in his curtained four-poster, actual intercourse is registered with a lot of cod-operatic oohing and aahing, so very, very unlike the home life of dear Nelson Eddy.

What is lacking is any savage bite. Lawson sings well and is full of sly charm, but the monomania of Horner and his profound contempt for the fraudulent ladies of quality he services have a far from diabolic edge. The fact that, even in the Wycherley, the virtuous romantic couple are too pallid to act as a proper counterweight to Horner is here made worse by reducing their presence and giving them a laughably drippy song. If, like me, you wonder why at the end of the first half a man is suddenly hanged, ponder this riddle: what can lose its balls and stay stiff?

(Photograph omitted)

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