Review: Very tragical mirth

THEATRE: The Popular Mechanicals: Arts Theatre, London
Perhaps it's all Tom Stoppard's fault. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead suggested, seemingly effortlessly, that there was much mileage to be got from Shakespeare's minor characters. It was as though the spin- off wrote itself: the act of putting these marginals under the magnifying glass brought you face to face with the puzzling (and to 20th-century eyes, absurd) business of their off-stage existence. Having spent an evening in the company of David Weston's beautifully fleshed-out Falstaff recently, I was almost persuaded that flagrant Bardic borrowing was an entirely legitimate activity - and that, if you picked the right personae to enlarge on, you'd probably have a well-deserved hit on your hands. But The Popular Mechanicals, which takes the Dad's Army crew of artisans-turned-thesps from A Midsummer Night's Dream and gives them their two hours of fame, is a dismal reminder of the perils of feeding off a greater dramatic imagination.

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

Dominic Cavendish