THEATRE

Iam in what used to be described as "a state". Let me explain. Like all serious theatrical ambulance-chasers, I attended the opening night of the doomed Edward and Mrs Simpson musical, Always. It was a less than happy occasion, although I was privy to a hitherto unreported news sensation. One of the illustrious first-nighters was whisked away by her driver, nearly prompting me to ring the news desk with "Barbara Cartland In Ford Granada Shock".

What I didn't know was that, during previews, the producers cut an entire sequence from the show. What was it? None other than the Abdication Dream Ballet. And you wonder why I'm shocked?

Dream Ballet or no, nothing could have saved that show. The sets, costumes and lighting were truly excellent but no matter how smart the wrapping, the present inside was a thumping dud. Not because of the insipid score or the mindless choreography. No, the fault lay fairly and squarely with the book.

Jan Hartley as Mrs Simpson deserves the Duke of Edinburgh award for bravery for emerging with her dignity intact. How she managed to invest such a crass and vapid script with integrity I shall never know, but despite her efforts, I simply couldn't believe what I was watching, much less care about it.

Always wasn't a musical, it was a conceit. Good songs alone do not make great musicals. Like all theatre, dramatic structure is all. And having a great book upon which to hang the score is the most important, most difficult and most overlooked requirement. That's what engages you and makes you care. Look at Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, Gypsy, West Side Story or Sweeney Todd. In each case, the relationship between the book and the score is symbiotic; the songs extend and develop the dramatic material.

Earlier this year, The Fix opened at the Donmar Warehouse to bewilderingly hostile reviews. With most new writing, raw talent is applauded and deficiencies overlooked. But, bizarrely, new musicals seem to be judged differently. They're either seen as instant hits or total failures. The Fix was neither, but the book and lyrics, in particular, positively seethed potential.

Let's hope that, unlike its predecessor, Enter The Guardsman, at London's Donmar Warehouse (0171-369 1732, from 18 Sept), the latest musical to enter the lion's den, will receive a fairer trial.

In the meantime, if you want to check out potential at an even earlier stage, try the final of the 1997 Vivian Ellis Award for new musicals, on 18 Sept at Her Majesty's Theatre, Haymarket, London SW1 (0171-494 5054) at 2pm.

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