To be blunt: neither the Oscar-winning presence of Geoffrey "Shine" Rush as director nor the advance hype about long-running success in Australia, where the show was first dreamed up 10 years ago, can mask the fact that The Popular Mechanicals will appeal only to those who like to have their brains surgically removed during the festive season. The problem here lies not with the acting - any of the cast could steal the play-within- the-play in a straight production - but with the idea that those whom the nobles and fairies momentarily find cute remain so when both those other worlds have been edited out.
Rather than filling in character detail, or providing a consistent dramatic scheme, the production is content to show the mechanicals as alternately stage-struck and attention-seeking, whether they're playing before the imagined royals or rehearsing in their back room.
The dialogue repeatedly mocks Shakespearian diction (whether quoted or pastiched) but has nothing memorably modern to add. Excruciating puns along the lines of "Is this a Degas I see before me?" are shoe-horned in, along with variations on the theme of "Bottom", and other crude innuendoes. The plot padding (an alcoholic professional stand-in for the vanished Bottom; revue numbers straight out of student Shakespeare piss-takes) is as painful to behold as the costume-stuffings.
There are moments when, beguiled by Dean Lennox Kelly's northern stand- up Snug the Joiner or co-deviser Keith Robinson's eye-poppingly camp Peter Quince, you can see what the fuss Down Under could have been about. It's hard to blame Rush, who gets maximum energy out of the cast, when the material is as babblingly incoherent as his screen David Helfgott. Unlike the pianist, however, there is no sign of genius behind the madness.
To 24 Jan. Booking: 0171-836 3334