Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Playhouse Theatre

After the furore caused by Kathleen Turner, and now Jerry Hall, dropping a towel to expose their firm middle-aged flesh in The Graduate, its the turn of the men to have their privates paraded in public. Luckily, we don't get to see the eponymous inch of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but elsewhere in town the are a couple of yards of the stuff in Puppetry of the Penis, not to mention brief full-frontal male nudity in The Car Man, the English National Opera's new production of Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea, and a rear view in the Young Vic's Julius Caesar.

All of this is by way of putting off the inevitable moment when I have to return to Hedwig and tell you just how dreadful it is. A supremely indulgent, even kitsch, piece of New York performance art disguised as a musical, it was first produced off-Broadway in a dilipidated hotel ballroom off the Westside Highway in the West Village. When I saw it there, it had some appeal as a strange and haunting reverie of a transgendered rock performer giving us a bizarre biographical journey through a life that included a botched penis removal (hence the angry inch of the title), interspersed with some of the aggressively loud songs s/he has based a career upon.

But transposed to a smart West End setting, it looks sorely out of place and even phoney. Suddenly this is not a confessional you have stumbled upon but something you are forced to endure. It's painful on a lot of levels, not least physical - the sound levels are sometimes earsplitting. (And StephenTrask's songs, or what I heard of them from what reached my eardrums through the fingers I'd put into my ears to protect them, seemed pretty routine rock numbers, none of them pretty).

There's no denying, however, the high-definition energy and commitment that Michael Cerveris, inheriting the title role from John Cameron Mitchell (who originated the show in New York and wrote what passes for the text), brings to the show. There are even, at moments, a feline grace and pathos, when the show dares to stop the inecessant noise that mostly prevails. But what, truly, does any of it mean? I'm damned if I know.

Mark Shenton