Charles Dickens’ final and unfinished novel ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ got a rather nice BBC airing last Christmas with Matthew Rhys as the opium-addicted brooding stalker John Jasper and pretty boy Freddie Fox as his quarry Edwin. Gwyneth Hughes’ telly adaptation kept firmly to the Victorian gothic theme, and stitched the threads of the mystery as neatly as could be fathomed from the few notes left by the author.

The 1985 stage musical takes a different, camper route by making the gothic tale the subject of a performance by a music hall company midway between the Crummles’ troupe from Nicholas Nickleby and Priestley’s ‘Good Companions’ – one of the girls taking the ‘trouser role’ of Edwin – and the brilliant theatrical stroke is to have the audience vote for which character is the murderer, and which couple falls in love at the end.

Rupert Holmes wrote endings for every eventuality, including the most unlikely – the mistake he made was also to write the songs, which are almost universally forgettable. At least by the time he wrote the book for the outstanding Broadway musical ‘Curtains’ in 2003 he had the sense to collaborate with Kander and Ebb for the music.

Regrettably, that’s what this show needs – well not them since Fred Ebb died while working on Curtains, but if Stiles and Drewe for example could do for Edwin Drood what they did for A Private Function, you could have a West End-worthy musical.

Which is not to say this is not a good night out. It is – the cast have great fun with the typical Dickensian stock characters of squire, vicar, villainous foreigner, waif, wanton, and pert servant (winning contribution from diminutive Ben Goffe and an out-and-out audition for the Beadle in Sweeney Todd from the wholly excellent Paul Hutton as Durdles) and they jolly the audience along with their sheer attack and conviction. There’s some nifty choreography from director Matthew Gould, resourceful set by Natasha Piper with some great atmospherics, a fine small band led by James Cleeve and some lusty music hall singalong to kick the evening off to a good start.

The cast is led by Wendi Peters, most famous as Cilla Battersby-Browne from Coronation Street, and a drama school chum of the director. She is both a surprise and a delight. As Princess Puffer, the shadowy opium-dealer and all-purpose harlot she fleshes out the tart-with-a-heart with a proper characterization and a remarkably good singing voice. Potentially a capable Mrs Lovett if Imelda Staunton decided to hang up her butchering apron.

In such an exceptionally strong cast, it’s a pity the role of Edwin Drood is such a damp offering: although Natalie Day is funny and engaging as her female character Alice Nutting, as Edwin she’s rather too feeble for such a pivotal role. Challenged with the task of singing without a radio mike the concluding number “The Writing on the Wall” which ties up all the loose ends for the audience and should send them smiling into the night – she’s simply inaudible, even in an auditorium only three rows deep.

This is a five-star production but unfortunately of a three-star musical. But worth the admission for Ms. Peters alone.

Runs until 5th May