Meryl Streep on the cliffs of Lyme Regis has immortalised The French Lieutenant's Woman on the silver screen, and now it has come to the stage.

John Fowles' Victorian tale of lost love, now playing at Richmond Theatre, does not disappoint. It sweeps you along those cliffs on a path winding unpredictably right up to its riveting end.

Charles Smithson (a suave but sensitive Anthony Howell) might appear a worldly wise London gentleman, but he is lost from the moment he sees the tormented Sarah Woodruff on a crag top.

Cast out as the town's scarlet woman, she grieves for the French lieutenant she could not have. Kate Odey bewitches as this intricate character - so vulnerable, yet so impenetrable.

Presiding over it all is The Writer (George Irving), an incarnation of Fowles who dictates the lives of the cast - at least to start with. His witty interjections provide some much-needed relief of what could easily turn into tediously heavy drama.

Alas, he is no omniscient creator. He does not know, right up to the end, which way the cards will fall. And even then the characters can still choose to defy him.

To complicate matters, Smithson is betrothed to the sweet but air-headed Ernestina Freeman (Hannah Young) - a local heiress more than a decade his junior.

Anne Kavanagh is truly hateful as Mrs Poulteney, the tyrannical female incarnation of a Pharisee. And the servants Sam (Sam Talbot) and Mary (newcomer Maimie McCoy) lighten the mood with their uncomplicated romance.

Mark Healy's stage adaptation succeeds, as Fowles intended, to portray the stifling dual morality of Victorian times. Women were considered to be either Madonnas or whores, whereas men were permitted - even expected - to visit brothels to satisfy their basest desires.

It is also a story of how two people - the one imprisoned in loneliness, the other in pretense - free each other in ways unexpected.

Libby Watson's multi-levelled stage forms the perfect backdrop, with innovative lighting and sound effects turning from cliffs to manor house to writer's study.

Director Kate Saxon's production, currently on its British premiere tour after a successful run on Broadway, slowly draws you in until you are lost in its intrigue. And then it lets you walk away, still haunted, but in a strange way found again.

  • The French Lieutenant's Woman, Richmond Theatre, London, until 28 October. Box office 0870 060 6651.

The production will also tour to The Lighthouse in Poole from 30 October to 4 November, and to the Churchill Theatre in Bromley between 13 and 18 November.