Archer's whodunit knocks 'em dead in London. The audience serves as jury in the novelist's popular courtroom drama

Beyond Reasonable Doubt Drama by Jeffrey Archer. Whenever British theater critics and playgoers are at opposite poles, it's fair to guess there's more to the situation than meets the eye. London's newest blockbuster, ``Beyond Reasonable Doubt'' at the Queen's Theatre, is a perfect case in point.

Written by international best-selling novelist Jeffrey Archer, the show has already made theatrical history here. Even before its recent opening, advance ticket sales were one of the highest in memory for a nonmusical.

And with lines forming nightly outside the Queen's, the demand seems unlikely to wane in the foreseeable future. Indeed, ``Beyond Reasonable Doubt,'' which marks the British novelist's debut as a stage dramatist, is now said to be doing business neck and neck with Andrew Lloyd Webber's ``Phantom of the Opera'' - an exceptional claim for a straight play.

Yet, individual performances aside, London critics have for the most part been disparaging. Why?

Put simply, they are judging the playwright, not the play. If that weren't the case, the show would have had a much different reception.

British cognoscenti on the whole do not like Jeffrey Archer. The reasons lie deep within the British psyche and, contrary to what might be assumed, have little to do with the former politician-cum-playwright's notorious (and victorious) libel trial last summer. Indeed, the only slight contribution that incident made to further fuel the Jeffrey Archer antifan club was to demonstrate yet again the author's uncanny ability to rise, with a comfortable margin, above adversity.

That's the crux of Archer's problem: He is a flagrant success. Thirteen years ago, in the face of financial disaster, he sat down to write a best seller - and succeeded. More novels followed, each as successful as the last. And each setting out to do little more than keep the reader gripped to the page.

British cognoscenti turn up their collective nose at what they see as calculated art, particularly when it proves so popular and makes its progenitor enormously rich to boot. The peculiarly British notion that the blatant pursuit of money is somehow distasteful most certainly lives on here, particularly among the ``cultured'' classes.

Worst of all, Archer is a Thatcherite, quite unabashedly. To be rich, a popularist, and a flag-waving Tory (not a political persuasion noted for its appeal within British artistic circles) is a combination guaranteed to bring a sneer to the lips of many critics. And so it has.

Enter ``Beyond Reasonable Doubt.'' The play opens in a courtroom. Sir David Metcalfe, one of the country's top criminal lawyers, is himself on trial - for the murder of his wife. His longtime chief adversary is leading the prosecution. The setting provides an unmistakably authentic air for the proceedings, supporting well the illusion that we, the audience, are the jury.

The case is open and shut, or so it seems. Lady Metcalfe had been seriously ill. She had been prescribed a ``once-a-week pill'' to ease pain; a greater dosage would have proved fatal. The housekeeper saw Sir David dissolve a pill into his wife's tea on the night in question, knowing full well that she, the housekeeper, had already administered to her mistress the weekly medicine. The court further learns that Metcalfe often argued violently with his wife and, in addition, had recently found himself ``financially embarrassed,'' because of some poor investments. He stood to inherit a million pounds upon his wife's demise.

Sir David takes the stand. Conducting his own defense, the same picture is painted, but in an entirely different hue. We hear of a devoted husband, an idyllic marriage, and a dimwitted housekeeper incapable of understanding the true nature of the Metcalfes' idiosyncratic style of canoodling.

Which is the true story?

The judge instructs us, the jurors, on the correct way, according to law, to assess the evidence. He then adjourns for lunch - we, for our intermission.

Act II is a flashback to the fateful night, followed by a flash forward to the week after the court's verdict.

Suffice it to say, the outcome can be second-guessed. There's a half twist near the end, however, to raise the plot neatly above the clich'e mark. Also to the show's credit, there is an uncommonly touching rendering of the relationship between Metcalfe and his wife. With the many current works about marriages turned sour, it's refreshing to see one depicting love so conscientiously kept alive; indeed, on the night I saw it, not a few sniffles could be heard in an otherwise hushed theater.

Director David Gilmore has clearly made the most of his material. The show seeks solely to entertain; in lesser hands, this end might not have been achieved nearly so well. Frank Finlay and Wendy Craig, both very familiar to British audiences, give perfect-pitch performances. The supporting cast is also top class.

The verdict?

Beyond reasonable doubt, Jeffrey Archer, despite the critics, has done it again.

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