When two old schoolfriends meet after eleven years, naturally they sing the old school song. “Girls of St Gert’s! Pure in your body, healthy in mind..” When two women are at odds over one man, it’s the dirty version you hear by the end. Gerts, Gerts, lift up your skirts!  It is a traditional love triangle that Alan Ayckbourn creates in this 1997 play; but there’s a fourth wheel on his wagon, and very beautifully it rolls along.

In heartless Feydeauesque farce it is important not to care much for the poor deluded puppets struggling in the machinery. In comedy drama you ache for them: when Ayckbourn is at his best, with his typical streak of pain, it can be difficult to remember why anybody ever chooses any other medium to lament the human condition.
Laurence Boswell’s shining production feels dateless : these people are ever with us. There’s Barbara the brisk chilly spinster PA and Nikki the eternal fourth-former, a cooing, little-girlish tease trailing her hunky oceanographer fiancé Hamish. Even the sweet, unpredictable oddball Gilbert in the basement flat is real: jauntiness and plumbing jargon on the surface and a boiling ferment of secret self-expression below.

Unusually, Ayckbourn wrote it for proscenium theatre, and part of its wit lies in the way it displays three floors of a Fulham house (Giles Cadle’s design here). Barbara’s flat, mimsily manless, is the centre, above and below mere slices. Aloft is the flat Nikki and Hamish have temporarily rented, so only feet and legs indicate the goings-on; below, we glimpse just the ceiling level of Gilbert’s basement, but it becomes a highly significant ceiling.

Claire Price is Barbara, with just the right combination of defiant briskness and shattered disappointment: her interplay with Edward Bennett’s Hamish, initially instinctive mutual hatred, gives the play sharp laughs from the start in those establishing scenes which often slow down such a comedy. Simon Gregor’s Gilbert is pitched to perfection, and pulls off the very Ayckbournian moment when, leg-jerkingly, assertively, comically drunk he suddenly catches pathos with the announcement that when his wife died the disco-ball stopped spinning in “a lonely ballroom where once we danced through life together”.

All are seasoned stage performers, but the surprising joy is Natalie Imbruglia, Neighbours star turned smash-hit popstrel. It’s her stage debut, but you’d think she had been working live on the boards for decades. Her Nikki is faultless: twining and gushing, teasingly frigid, finally a ball of tense and vengeful violence.
It romps to its conclusion beautifully, by way of a spirited, bum-biting, roller-pinning, headbangingly bruising fight (arranger, Kate Waters , take a bow). And students of the comic form will rather enjoy the fact that it seems to end twice. If Joe Orton had been in charge (at times his ghost nods approvingly) it would have ended with a certain mayhem-transvestite-disaster shock. Ayckbourn bolts on five more minutes because not all audiences like to go home on a note of disgraceful chaos. Two for the price of one.



TOURING to 21 june: next up, 13- 17 May at New Theatre, Cardiff
Rating: five 5 Meece Rating

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