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Toby Young
Saturday 2nd November 2002

Home and Beauty / Contact / Adrenalin Heart / Our House

The Spectator - 2nd November 2002

It's been a bad week, I'm afraid. Let's start with Home and Beauty. Presumably, Bill Kenwright, the veteran West End producer, was quite pleased with The Constant Wife, the Somerset Maugham play that closed on October 12 after a six-month run. How else to account for the fact that he's revived a second Maugham play and put it on in exactly the same theatre? Last time out, the big draw was Jenny Seagrove and this time round it's Jamie Theakston, the disgraced BBC television presenter. It's nice to know that there's life after a tabloid sex scandal. If Bill Kenwright decides to revive another Somerset Maugham play, perhaps there'll be a part in it for Angus Daeyton.

Home and Beauty is the kind of West End production that the broadsheet critics describe as "safe" and "middlebrow" and, though I'd dearly love to defend it, I don't think I can. The set-up is actually quite ingenious: A beautiful young widow marries a dashing army officer during the First World War only to discover, after the Armistice is signed, that her first husband is alive and well and on his way home. The problem isn't Jamie Theakston, who does a serviceable job as the dashing army officer, and it certainly isn't Alexander Armstrong, who's pretty good in the Martin Guerre role. The problem is Victoria Hamilton who gives an absurdly over-the-top performance as the beautiful young wife. It's like watching Angela Rippon ham it up in one of those awful plays written by "Little Ern" in a Morecambe & Wise Christmas special. No doubt the director, Chirstopher Luscombe, bears the lion's share of the responsibility, but there's no excuse for a performance like this. And Hamilton was so good in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.

Contact, which is playing next door to Home and Beauty, is a good deal better, but not really worth bothering with unless you're a passionate dance fan. To describe it as a musical would be inaccurate since it doesn't have any songs, at least not ones sung by any of the characters--and it doesn't really have a book either. Rather, it's a series of sketches designed to showcase the skills of Susan Stroman, one of the best choreographers in the world. She choreographed two of the biggest hits currently running on Broadway--Oklahoma! and The Producers--and she won a Tony for Contact when it debuted at Lincoln Center two years ago.

The longest of the three sketches concerns the midlife crisis of a depressed advertising executive played by Michael Praed and while the story is hackneyed and unconvincing--it's credited to a writer called John Weidman--the dance numbers in which he courts a mysterious beauty played by Leigh Zimmerman are witty and engaging. Still, all in all Contact seems a poor excuse for a two-hour piece of musical theatre. If musicals are your bag, go and see Trevor Nunn's incomparable production of My Fair Lady at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Now that's a musical.

Adrenalin Heart is probably the best of the plays I've seen in the past week, but even this is something I'd hesitate to recommend. Directed by Mike Bradwell, the Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre, it's the first in a season of new plays at the Bush by young British writers. It's a two-hander charting a relationship between a local government worker and a black drug dealer in a North London council estate. During the early stages of the romance, when the protagonists are still circling each other, Adrenalin Heart is quite lively and entertaining, but when the affair goes pear-shaped the play does too. After a while, you just don't want to listen to this unsavoury pair arguing any more, and that's no reflection on Julia Ford and Mark Monero who both give good performances. I mean, what resident of Shepherd's Bush is going to pay to listen to this pair scream at each other when you can hear couples exactly like this arguing outside the theatre for free? Let's hope the two others plays in this season, which continues until December 21, are a bit more upbeat.

Our House bills itself as an original modern musical, but that's not strictly true. What it is is a blatant knock off of We Will Rock You, the Queen musical playing at the Dominion. This time the band is Madness and, as with We Will Rock You, a half-hearted effort has been made to weave a story around the band's greatest hits. The kindest thing I can say about Our House is that Tim Firth's book is no worse than Ben Elton's book for We Will Rock You. I found the whole experience so painful that I left during the interval, but I suppose it's conceivable that parties of young schoolchildren might enjoy it. For anyone over 12, though, it's best avoided.

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