First Night: Hardy's Tess suffers in travesty of musical

Tess of the D'urbervilles Savoy Theatre London
TESS OF the D'Urbervilles as a big-budget musical? Why ever not? - Look at what Cliff Richard did with Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff precisely.

Oh, er, right, I see what you mean. You know, from its opening moments, that this version of Hardy's novel of doomed love and sexual double standards isn't even going to reach that level of badness.

This musical adaptation by director Karen Louise Hebden begins about half-way through at a point when pivotal events in the heroine's life - the rape by her upper-class cousin Alec; the birth and death of her bastard child - have already occurred and Tess has travelled to seek work on a dairy farm.

Her experiences to date are told in flashbacks, heralded by ludicrous thunder and lightning and with Poppy Tierney's beautiful, strong-voiced but inexpressive Tess stupidly wondering each time: "Who is spinning the wheel?/Is it Old Chance or somebody's game?/How can I make it stop/So that my world stays the same?"

Relying on the fact that most of its target audience won't have read the book, the musical replaces Hardy's subtle exploration of the effects of having a hidden past with the crude melodrama of gradual revelation.

With Justin Fleming's cloth-eared lyrics, stuffed with duff rhymes and with Stephen Edwards' music that surges from stupefying vapidity to overblown generalised emotion, it's a wonder the cast has managed to memorise the throughsung score.

At the close of the novel, after the heroine has been hanged, Hardy comments that the President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess.

What the President of the Immortals did to her was a full body massage and a glamorous makeover compared to the travesty inflicted on her here.