Baby Doll at the Albery

We've all heard of the film of the play; this is the play of the film of the play (or rather two plays). In this new version of Tennessee Williams' homage to illicit sexual passion, director Lucy Bailey has gone back to the notorious 1956 film, rather than the stage plays that the film was based on.

This means that the whole evening experience is somewhat akin to going to the cinema, with a stunning opening. The set gradually pulls back, like a Soho peepshow, revealing Charlotte Emmerson sprawled out in a child's cot in the provocative pose made famous by Carroll Baker in the film poster. And as more of the stage is revealed, we see her husband trying to drill a hole in the wall to spy on his young bride, whom, we later learn, has refused to consummate the marriage until her twentieth birthday, which is only a couple of days away.

Bailey's intention is plain: we, the audience, are all as equally voyeuristic as Baby Doll's hapless husband, Archie Lee. It's a truly startling opening scene. Unfortunately, although Bailey continues to use every cinematic device she can think of, she's not able to maintain the atmosphere after such a spell-binding start. Partly this is down to the actors, who aren't able to deliver on her vision, but mainly it's because the play itself is so inadequate.

First, the actors. Emmerson's Baby Doll is nowhere near voluptuous enough to be truly convincing as a nymphet whose allure destroys men. Nor does Jonathan Cake - for all his sweaty, muscular presence (it is of course an immutable law that all Williams' male characters must appear in a vest at some stage) - manage to persuade us that he is the passionate, hot-blooded Italian Vaccaro that Williams tried to create. The scene where he pursues Baby Doll through the rickety old house, a scene that should be dripping with sexual tension, is curiously unerotic. Surely here - where Baby Doll is torn between fear and curiosity, desire and apprehension and where Vaccaro has the opportunity to dominate the wife of his bitter enemy - the passion should be overpowering. As it is, the emotion is cautious and muted.

Only Paul Brennen's Archie Lee lifts this production to another level. Despite an accent that hovers dangerously close to WC Fields', Brennen manages to convey perfectly how a person can be driven mad by lust for his untouched (and untouchable) bride, by hatred for the foreigner who's taken his business, and by greed as he leaves his young wife in the company of his bitter enemy, in pursuit of extra profit.

The real star of the evening, however, is Buster Christie's set. From the peep-show opening to the vast, roomy, cinematic expanse of Archie Lee's cotton gin, this set must set Christie up as frontrunner in the designer of the year award.

Still, it can't ultimately mask the fact that this production was a misconceived venture and, for all Bailey's trickery and adventure, this is one revival that should have been quietly forgotten.

Maxwell Cooter