THE DICE HOUSE
Arts Theatre, London WC2
Opened 10 February, 2004
****

Every few years since its publication in 1971, a new generation has rediscovered Luke Rhinehart's novel The Dice Man and its only half-joking ideas about the liberation of letting a roll of the dice determine your behaviour, however bizarre or out of character. And every few years someone tries to adapt the book for another medium. Paul Lucas's version, now at the Arts Theatre, comes with the Rhinehart seal of approval, perhaps because with apt perverseness it isn't an adaptation at all, but a straightforward farce "inspired by" the ideas of the novel.

It's also not a little inspired by Joe Orton's What The Butler Saw. An old, rambling house full of nutters, two psychiatrists each bonkers in his own way, the rogue wife of one, plus a policeman (more or less) who arrives halfway through... the character types could be drawn from the same templates. The difference is that Dr Drabble is intent (or so it seems) on arranging the abduction of his wife from the centre in which she has become the dice-living star patient of Dr Ratner.

Lucas also has a near-Ortonesque way with particularly English turns of black-comic phrase. Just before the interval, when the full extent of Drabble's own evil scheme is revealed, he mutters distractedly, "Why am I like this? It can only be due to television." Neal Foster as Ratner is repeatedly required to turn on a sixpence as each roll of the dice changes his conduct: on finding a patient's hand has been cut off, he offers, "Let me phone for a..." [rolls dice] "...window cleaner," barely missing a beat. He also gets a range of dice-dictated costume changes, from gymslip to leather-boy.

Jeremy Crutchley is a rather mannered actor. I don't mean this insultingly; in fact, as Drabble, he can tic and smirk and chuckle to his heart's content, and it works. In a Pink Panther prequel, he'd be a shoo-in for the role of young Commissioner Dreyfus. Graeme Messer's exuberant production lets one or two minor characters go a bit OTT (yes, even in this context), and fails to solve the problem that that Lucas has simply underwritten the nearest the play has to a young "normal" couple. But any twists and turns of plotting can be easily ascribed to a dice decision, and it all works really rather well even for someone like me who's not usually a great fan of farce. One serious criticism, though: Rhinehart, unlike Lucas, was always clear that "dice" is a PLURAL noun; the singular is "die".

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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