The scenery isn’t the only thing that clangs in the Almeida Theater’s Christmas spectacular, “The Tower,” a piece of overripe Romanticism that induces giggles rather than a call to arms. Presented with funding from both Cameron Mackintosh (for the score) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (for that heavy and imposing John Napier set), the production is an extravagant folly that has to be seen — or, more accurately, heard — to be believed: “Les Miserables” was never like this.
The melodrama by Alexandre Dumas pere (he of “Three Musketeers” renown) was written in 1832, three decades before Victor Hugo’s epic, but the only thing epic about “The Tower” is its degree of silliness. While the preposterously lurid 14th century goings-on would seem to demand a cheeky take on the script, director Howard Davies and a hard-working company play it more or less straight. And though there are enough ingredients here to constitute a camp classic — leading lady Sinead Cusack’s leather gear to start with — the play needs Everett Quinton’s Ridiculousness, not Davies’ misplaced sobriety.
Cusack plays the flowingly tressed Marguerite de Bourgogne, France’s once-and-future queen, given to depraved activities at the Tour de Nesle abetted by her equally scheming former lover Buridan (Adrian Dunbar). Her gentlemen-in-waiting, Philippe and Gaultier, pass from putative lovers to enemies only to be revealed — zut, alors! — as her children in a bloody finale that suggests “The Duchess of Malfi” reconceived by Mel Brooks.
The plot is rife with identifying body marks, floating corpses and the odd Errol Flynn-like swing across the stage, most of it cued to an original score by Jonathan Dove (“Mother Courage and Her Children”) that is far more evocative than Charles Wood’s translation. (“He for me; me for him,” says the first Marguerite son to meet his maker, his unspoken crime a poor homage to the famous “Three Musketeers” rallying cry.)
Others along for the Grand Guignol ride include Landry, a Cockney thug played by Nigel Lindsay as a Franglais-spouting cousin to his Mugsy in Patrick Marber’s “Dealer’s Choice”; Savoisy, a preening royal courtier, played by Geoffrey Beevers with the necessary camp insouciance; and the innkeeper Orsini (David Herlihy), who lends the occasional Italian phrase to the onstage Babel. The two leads must bear the burden of the purplest passages –“I have suspended my life on such a gossamer thread as man’s honor,” says the imprisoned Buridan at the start of act two — and neither Cusack nor Dunbar can make anything truthful of a scenario full of derring-do and utterly devoid of logic or reality.