Mysterious Mr Love at the Comedy Venue information & Performances on here

It cannot be a portent of good fortune when in a new West End show's first week the theatre is only half full. Nor that members of the muted audience exit after the curtain call muttering 'Well, it wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be.'

Sadly, this was the situation at a recent performance of The Mysterious Mr Love, the first full length stage play from writer Karoline Leach. Set in Edwardian England, this is the tale of a small-time conman who marries lonely middle-aged spinsters and then makes off with their life savings. Paul Nicholas plays cool smoothie George Love and Susan Penhaligon is dowdy Adelaide Pinchin, his latest victim.

The play begins amusingly enough as the two characters, operating in separate, concurrent spheres, introduce themselves directly to the audience and whizz through the motions of how they met and 'fell in love'. The confiding-in-the-audience device goes on a bit too long, though, and stultifies the action though it does allow George to get in some laughable digs at the expense of Adelaide.

The device is quickly dropped once the newly married couple are alone in their wedding night bedroom and heatedly discussing more serious matters - i.e. Adelaide's abusive father and consequent rock-bottom self-esteem. Gone with the device is our heartless suitor as George tries to rebuild his wife's confidence. Without his comments telling us what he is doing and why, we are left guessing at the reason for his sudden transformation.

There are more surprises in the second act as Adelaide becomes shrewder and George more violent than we were first led to believe. This act goes on too long for the sake of getting in more and more increasingly predictable twists.

But let's be fair. As the man said, it really wasn't as bad as expected. In fact, there were some very nice elements to this play - Penhaligon in particular. The women in the audience audibly 'ahhhed' when Adelaide bemoaned her weight problem. And throughout, Adelaide's emotions and idiosyncracies - from flightiness to vulnerability, confusion, wedding night jitters and desperation - were written expressively across Penhaligon's face. In comparison, Nicholas seemed very wooden - fine for his cool, con-man facade but less convincing when he was meant to drop this and reveal his own vulnerability.

There is an audience for Mr Love - those who enjoyed Susan Hill's The Woman in Black may well be drawn to it. Unfortunately, this new offering does not pull off the same degree of tension and sheer creepiness and does not warrant a repeat of Woman in Black's long-running success.

Terri Paddock, August 1997