The ongoing refurbishment of the Crucible Theatre means that new productions by Sheffield Theatres are much rarer these days. Nikolai Foster’s ambitious, strongly-cast production of Peter Shaffer’s classic, Amadeus, therefore has the feel of a big occasion, with an excellent young string ensemble playing Mozart in the foyer.

Amadeus, of course, is the Mozart play that’s not really about Mozart. The myth has long existed that court composer Salieri, more materially successful, but lacking in genius, poisoned Mozart. In Shaffer’s version the ageing Salieri confesses, not to the murder, but to the systematic destruction of his rival’s success and happiness. The story is acted out with Mozart, initially brash, foul-mouthed and uncontrollably childish, finding humanity and a measure of maturity as his life collapses around him. Other characters, from the Emperor downwards, are sharply defined, though not at great depth.

Nearly 30 years on, the wit and ingenuity of the play remain undiminished. The brilliant central irony of the play is the insight that Salieri, who desperately wishes to deny Mozart’s genius, is the only person to recognise it. However, to parody the Emperor’s comment on Mozart’s music, there are too many words. In particular, Salieri is a voluble narrator, telling of his latest scheme to ruin the upstart, his challenge to God, Mozart’s most recent social disaster, etc.

The plays thus depends, almost too much, on the role of Salieri. Gerard Murphy gives an intelligent, clearly-defined, well-spoken performance, but he needs to be lighter on his feet, both literally and metaphorically, and monotony sometimes sets in.

The supporting cast is excellent, though Nichola Burley’s feisty Constanze needs to get more words across. Bryan Dick is an unusually sympathetic Mozart, bringing out the vulnerability and decency beneath the wild excesses. Nigel Hastings is a splendidly vacuous Emperor and Mike Burnside, Robert East, Russell Dixon and Timothy Kightley form an outstanding quartet of mature character actors. The Venticelli, Shaffer’s rather precious concept of a chorus, gain new life in Steven Duffy and Mark Hilton’s punkish interpretations.

Colin Richmond’s design goes very successfully for the monumental and the spacious, the bare set with great doors and reflective floor enlivened by elegant costumes and furniture. Guy Hoare’s lighting plot, with its multitude of candles and its subtle isolation of different parts of the vast acting area, is exemplary. All the elements seem to be in place for another Crucible triumph; however, the whole, though impressive enough, is somewhat less than the sum of the parts.

- Ron Simpson