Tess of the D'Urbervilles at the Savoy Theatre

Tess of the D'Urbervilles, the new musical version of Thomas Hardy's Wessex tale, is something of a bottom-numbing experience. When it finally ends you reflect that the tragedy isn't that poor Tess suffered bad luck in a cruel world, but that Karen Louise Hebden's overlong production ever got off the ground in the first place.

The show's major fault seems to lie in the subject matter: for a musical, Hardy's storyline is far too gloomy and pessimistic. Naive, bucolic Tess Durbeyfield (Phillipa Healey on the night - she shares the role with Poppy Tierney) meets and marries the idealistic gentleman farmer Angel Clare (Robert Irons). On their wedding night, they reveal secrets to each other about their past - he has had 'experience' with an older woman; she has been seduced and borne a child by a caddish squire named Alec d'Urberville (Alasdair Harvey).

Upon hearing her secret, Angel hypocritically abandons Tess, leaving her destitute. Circumstances force her to reluctantly take up again with Alec but, soon after, a regretful Angel returns to win back his wife. Their reunion is short-lived though. Tess murders Alec and is arrested as dawn breaks at Stonehenge.

Stephen Sondheim managed to take an equally dark, unsettling tale, Passion d'Amour and successfully turn it into Passion on stage. But, alas, lyricist Justin Fleming and composer Stephen Edwards are hardly in the Sondheim league, and neither is their adapter Ms Hebden.

Somehow this team has failed to come up with a single memorable song in this sung-through show. Instead there are sixteen-or-so attempts to combine pedestrian lyrics with something that sounds like the score from a Hollywood epic. (Actually, sixteen is a rough guess, because it was often difficult to distinguish where one number ended and the next began.)

The characterisation, too, feels heavy handed. Maybe it's in the name of simplicity, but Hebden has reduced Hardy's central figures to a bunch of Mills and Boon-style stereotypes. From the moustache-twirling squire to the wide-eyed country-girl and her sensitive, priggish lover. Even the support is clichéd - a gang of swooning, busty dairymaids.

That said, Tess displays high production values. Bruce Athol Mackinnon's sets and versi-coloured cloudscapes look the business, Healey and Harvey both had strong vocal chords, and Maxine Fone, as young Tess, is a fine dancer.

But few seemed to take this into account as the cast took their bows to lukewarm applause. Except perhaps for an American lady behind me who remarked to her subdued hubby, 'Oh, come on honey. It's not their fault.' She couldn't have been more right.

Richard Forrest