Women trouble

MUSICAL Nine Donmar Warehouse, London
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The Independent Culture
If you want to drive women crazy, don't be a poncy Englishman or a Dutch megabore. "Be Italian!" is the advice given, when he's a boy, to the Fellini-esque movie director in Nine.

The irony running through David Leveaux's production of this Copit-Yeston musical is that Larry Lamb, who stars as the grown up Guido Contini, is about as pulsatingly Latin in stage presence as Manuel in Fawlty Towers is ceremoniously Japanese. This, oddly enough, turns out to be an advantage. Audiences love actors when they are miscast but manage to triumph over the odds through sheer guts. And by the end, the second-night audience with whom I saw Nine were in love with Lamb.

This is all the more peculiar an achievement given that the character he plays - a blocked movie director who spends his time alternating between adulterous fornication and cannibalising his emotional life for the screen - is already offputtingly over-endowed with lovers. Like the Fellini film 81/2, on which this 1982 musical is based, Nine thinks it's an analysis of the hero's narcissistic conception of the world, but ultimately can't get out of its own narcissistic trap.

Yet I think that long stretches of this show are terrific and that Leveaux's production, by and large, skilfully gives it the darkly witty, fantasmagoric feel the proceedings need. A huge mirror tilts overbearingly over the stage, with the slight suggestion of operating theatre as much as theatre. Dressed in achingly fashionable Sixties clobber, the myriad women in Guido's life cluster about him in a dreamlike way. For example, while his wife (whose pain is eloquently expressed by Suzannah Fellows) looks on thinking her husband is taking a call from the Vatican, Guido's mistress (superb Clare Burt) sings to him and performs a stunningly sexy and funny missionary position dance on the round table that acts as a sort of inner stage. There's a whiff of potential danger in the air with all these women who, you feel, could easily turn into the Bacchae.

The show prompts inevitable comparisons with Sondheim's Company, which is an altogether better piece. On the other hand, any lyricist who can half-rhyme Proust with Christ is more than all right in my book, and the score has a stringency and range, stretching its way round everything from blasphemous liturgical burbling to a knockout Follies Bergeres spoof, brilliantly performed by Sara Kestelman as Guido's producer. Guido's climactic bonding with his inner child (played with a lovely unforced sweetness and charm by Owen Proctor Jackson) might well make you want to throw up. But even here wit saves the day. For when all the women desert Guido, it's this younger self who mischievously leads them off, dancing ahead of them on the aerial walkways of Anthony Ward's set like a juvenile cross between the Pied Piper and an under-age Bluebeard.

To 8 March 1997. Booking: 0171-369 1732

Paul Taylor