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Boredom on the breadline

Trevor Nunn has become the Pied Piper of the West End. Any tunes his musicals play - Cats, Les Miserables, Aspects of Love - attract hordes of acolytes ready to follow wherever he may lead.

The idea of a musical based on Marcel Pagnol's La Femme de Boulanger has been bouncing around the American theatre for 15 years. It was only when Joseph Stein, who wrote the book, and Stephen Schwartz, who provided the music and the lyrics, learned that Trevor Nunn was interested in the concept that they had a show.

Pagnol's neat little gem is quintessentially French. Without an understanding of the languorous, unhurried life of a provincial village in 1935 - "Why do you need to know the time if you are not going anywhere?" asks someone - as well as the place of food in the national psyche, the problem of The Baker's Wife, now at the Phoenix, seems too insubstantial and sentimental for non-French audiences.

Even with Trevor Nunn's delicate directional touch, there still lingers over the cafe chatter and the games of boules a feeling that these Provençal provincials would be more comfortable arguing about football and the merits of fish and chips.

The plot adheres to the principle that small is beautiful. It is about the middle-aged baker, newly arrived with a young wife, whose delicious bread turns the village into a gastronomic paradise. When she runs off with a local handyman, her husband stops baking, and his customers organise frantic search parties to find her and convince her to come back.

The production oozes charm in spite of the fact that the villagers are engaged in pointless family feuds and hypocritically relish the discovery of a cuckold in their midst.

Although we can sympathise with the young wife's boredom with her gentle, conventional husband, the man she chooses as an alternative has nothing to commend him except a strapping, well-built body and an impertinent courting manner. One suspects that Castagnet, the baker, would be better off without her.

Alun Armstrong wins our affection as a master baker, refusing to accept the duplicity of his wife and glorying in his bread as an art form. When he resorts to drunkenness to blot out his pain, his version of a collapsing drunk is a comic delight.

Stephen Schwartz's melodies blending the catchy tunes of Tin Pan Alley with tingling echoes of the flavour of Montparnasse flow through the action like some sparkling wine that is not exactly vintage.

Trevor Nunn's direction manages to convince us that a Frenchman can be as rapturous about a warm croissant or baguette as Captain Hook in Peter Pan was about rich, damp cake. But I'm not sure that it is a diet that will find its way through the stomach to the heart of most English audiences.

Sharon Lee Hill looks delectable as the bakers disconsolate wife, but it is a role that ultimately alienates our sympathy because there are worse things in life than being married to an older man.

Alun Armstrong and Sharon Lee Hill in The Baker's Wife
(Picture: Alastair Muir)

Milton Shulman, Evening Standard


Copyright © 2002 M. Kniestedt. All rights reserved.