There's no getting around the fact that Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a brilliant play - and it has been done exceedingly brilliantly in the past.
Based on Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 epistolary novel about the sexually fuelled power struggles of the otherwise idle French aristocracy, Hampton's stage adaptation premiered in 1985 in an RSC production, starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, that transferred to the West End and Broadway, scooping up accolades including the Olivier for Best New Play along the way. In 1988, it was famously made into an Oscar-winning film starring John Malkovich, Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer.
The ghosts of those many fine performances still linger and are always in danger of obstructing objective assessments of any fresh takes on the piece - which makes it a very brave decision on the part of any director or performer to tackle Les Liaisons Dangereuses anew.
Director Tim Fywell has taken up the challenge here and, in an interview with Hampton printed in the programme, sounds as if he has a measure of the piece. Amongst other things, he talks about the dangerous nature of the subject matter, the hypocrisy and self-delusion at the play's heart, the musicality of the drawing room language and, most critically, the need to be both seduced and appalled by the monstrous characters.
What a shame that none of this bears fruit on stage. The crux of the problem lies with Polly Walker and Jared Harris, who appear badly miscast as the play's manipulative puppeteers, the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont. Aside from a woeful lack of chemistry or charisma, neither comes close to conveying the complex nature of the emotional deceptions used on themselves as much as their conquests.
An apparent unease with the cut-and-thrust of Hampton's repartee also means that the doubles are well and truly excised from most of the entendres, making the evening boring where it should be boisterously bawdy.
Luckily, Emilia Fox provides a forceful corrective. As Madame de Tourvel, Valmont's pious prize, Fox turns what could be a drab role into a riveting one. God knows why she'd fall hopelessly in love with Harris' Valmont, but you truly believe that she does, and the inevitability of her desire and consequent demise is heartbreaking.
Elsewhere in a variable ensemble, Sarah Woodward, Dilys Laye and Jayne Ashbourne make strong impressions in slight parts, while Robert Innes Hopkins' set, with chandeliers in continual ascent and descent, is elegant but hardly as sumptuous as it should be. Like the rest of this lacklustre production, it falls far short of expectations.