Why is it that middle-aged lady bopping frenetically with the young crowd to Blondie, her wild abandon rather hampered by the PowerBook she is holding? Is it the latest craze: laptop dancing? Or is it the spectacle of an actress stuck in a theatre-piece whose cyberspace metaphor is quickly exposed as being more of an embarrassing encumbrance than a genuine organising principle?
This stage adaptation of Jeanette Winterson's novel, The PowerBook, launches the Transformation season in the dramatically reconfigured Lyttelton. You can see why Deborah Warner was tempted back to the National after seven years. For the first time, the audience is united, while the end-on acting area combines the epic and the intimate.
Lines of computer text swarm in contrary directions over Tom Pye's smart, glistening set, but this show (devised by Winterson, Warner, and Fiona Shaw, who stars) emphasises how what felt spurious and out-of-touch with the online world on the page feels even more so on stage. The piece follows the fortunes of Ali (Fiona Shaw) who writes stories for people on e-mail. She receives an anonymous appeal to be given "Freedom, just for one night". So, telling this client to "Take off your clothes. Take off your body", she embarks on the narrative of a lesbian love affair with an unnamed married woman in which (as it hops between London, Paris and Capri, and cyberspace) the real and the imagined intersect.
The alluring Saffron Burrows radiates a quiet seductive authority as the elusive other woman, but Shaw struggles, like the production, to find the right tone, opting at the start for an embarrassed jokey manner that puts you in mind of a Joyce Grenfell hockey mistress. This is a narrative about how love robs the cyber-storyteller of the control she had prized. A stage version needs to dramatise the tension between the dangers of disembodied communication and the different emotional risks of intense carnal contact.
Suggestive moments in the novel (a pun on the meanings of "screen", from computer to confessional) are under-explored. Miss Shaw may clutch her PowerBook to her breast, or switch it off with a toe, but the addictiveness of being online is never communicated. Similarly, there's no eroticism in the risibly staged inset stories of legendary couples, nor in the contemporary love scenes, where the decision to express things by opposites (the lovers walk to opposite wings, say, while recounting passionate intimacy) ends up looking coy and keeps the temperature too cool.
TV monitors dutifully bob up and down, but the attempts at illustrating popular culture are toe-curlingly off-key and patronising. The project pushes further down the road that the director and actress explored in their staging of The Waste Land: to make theatre out of non-theatrical texts. But where Eliot's poem is a clash of diverse voices, Winterson's novel, for all its focus on love, gives you one voice only, which sounds remarkably like hers. Sub-Eliot fortune cookie motto ("The clock ticks, but only in time") meets the Higher Novelette. A rare disappointment from the great Warner-Shaw partnership, this PowerBook needs its theatrical software updated.
To 4 June (0207-452 3000)
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