Where has the joy gone to in musical theatre? Once upon a time you went to a musical to have a good time. Now, alas, it's penance, not pleasure, that you get instead.

The trend began with the worldwide success of Les Miserables, which delivered its intention even in its title. The imitators since have been legion - most have been pretty poor, failing to recognise that you need as involving a story, as rigorous a production, and as tuneful a score as that now legendary tear-jerker.

La Cava The Musical is by no means the worst of the bunch and is a sincere, serious attempt to musicalise a sweeping, epic tale of passion. Unfortunately, however, there are some serious flaws, too, despite the handsome (and obviously very expensive) packaging it comes in.

Like Les Miserables, it sets a domestic story against the background of real-life public events. But Dana Broccoli's book for the show, based on her own little-known novel 'Florinda', offers clumsy narrative development, and is far too densely plotted, to be contained by a virtually through-sung show. Some 34 songs and reprises, plus underscoring, are asked to carry the 27 scenes of the nearly three hour show.

Based on real-life figures from 8th-century Visigothic Spain, the show unfolds as an earnest historical pageant that centres on a romance between King Roderic and the young daughter of one of his best friends, General Julian Espatorias, that leads ultimately to his downfall.

The score, mostly in an insipidly romantic vein, sounds generic and unoriginal, though it is appealingly orchestrated, beautifully played by the orchestra under the baton of Michael Haslam, and well performed by a mostly strong cast. Only the two principals - Oliver Tobias, a low-budget Alan Bates, as the King and Julie Alanah Brighten as his undeniably attractive lover - let the side down with their cloying, annoying performances.

Elsewhere, pluses include the gorgeous designs of Francis O'Connor - massive walls of wood panels and billowing screens - and the atmospheric lighting of Chris Ellis.

But musicals need to get happy again. This one is way too earnest to succeed.

Mark Shenton