Disposing of the Body at the Hampstead Theatre

Why has mild-mannered housewife Angela Preece inexplicably vanished from sleepy Stoke Amberley? Has she upped stumps to start a new life because she's twigged her husband is bonking their neighbour? Has she been bumped off and incinerated at the bottom of their garden? Or is she just taking her time on a trip to John Lewis's soft furnishings department?

These are the questions at the core of Hugh Whitemore's lacklustre mystery tale, Disposing of the Body, and a long time coming they are too.

Up till this point, Whitemore treats us to fifty minutes' worth of torpid exposition, which sees boring, middle-class Henry (Stephen Moore) taking early retirement, moving to the sticks with Angela (Charlotte Cornwell), embarking on a book about old gramophone records, having a distant relationship with son Ben (Ben Porter) and a closer one with his secretarial help, Joanne.

Maybe it's in an attempt to relieve the tedium that the author has chosen to pepper his play with a number of gratuitous shocks. These range from the odd tacky turn of phrase, to the clumsy coup de théâtre of Henry being launched through a backcloth by an irate hotel manager (James Benson). Director Robin Lefevre backs this spectacle up by setting alarm bells ringing on stage, but he needn't have bothered, since they were already going off in the heads of some of the audience.

As if to pay lip service to those after more than just a Hetty Wainthrop yarn, there is also some middlebrow stuff about behaviour genetics, spouted by Ken Drury's balding, bespectacled philosopher manque, D.I. Poole. In the hands of Frayn or Stoppard, this might be thought-provoking stuff, but here it arrives too late and too fleetingly for us to really treat it seriously.

On the plus side, there are a couple of nice twists towards the end of the play, Gemma Jones and Joanna McCallum aren't bad as Henry's lover and sympathetic sister-in-law respectively. and David Horovitch has our sympathy as the cuckold, Alexander Barley.

But these aren't enough to overcome the plodding first half, Tom Piper's characterless all-white, all-purpose set, and the odd casting choice of Moore in the main role. Turning to address the audience, he seems so laid back, even in moments of anguish, that you feel he'd be more at home fronting Gardeners' World than a drama about adultery and its aftermath.

Richard Forrest