…Which is to say, the question of whether time-travel would enable you to change the past, hence the present, via parallel universes of possibility. Sir Alan Ayckbourn confected this odd , ultimately enchanting tale of thriller-noir skulduggery by a greedy financier and his murderous sidekick.  Thanks to a hotel-suite closet proving to be a portal into the past in twenty-year increments, doughty female practicality from two doomed wives and a leather-clad tart overcomes evil and safeguards the future. Except, naturally, for the preposterous baddie, played by David Bamber with a camp menace equalled only (Ah, memories!) by Kenneth Williams doing his send-up of Charles Boyer in GASLIGHT in Round the Horne.

In classic Ayckbourn mode it begins with a slow burn, establishing – by way of a dying man improbably hiring a dominatrix to witness his confession – a back-story which is destined to be disrupted by time-travellers from twenty and forty years earlier (pay attention there at the back! Actually, don’t bother: Lindsay Posner’s direction and Ayckbourn’s courteous clarity keep matters perfectly comprehensible, even once the time capsule cupboard starts rotating).

The play speeds up no end once scientific impossibility and determined women take over control: for it has three of the larkiest imaginable female comedy drama roles.
Rachel Tucker is the prostitute Poopay, condemned at first to be merely stroppy, baffled, horrified and nearly throttled. Not enough to work on at first, but when she meets wife no. 2, twenty years back from her own time, the glorious female interaction around which the play rotates can really begin. The catalyst is Imogen Stubbs as the middle-aged Ruella , fabulously scoutmistressy with an underlying warmth. This is the sort of formidably pragmatic Good Woman who on being invaded by a terrified whore from the future takes it in her stride with prison-visitor breeziness, and commands her to assist in preventing the murders. “None of this feeble attitude! Shape up, girl!”. Between them and the portal success seems achievable, but comes up against that philosophical puzzle about whether being dead in one time-frame necessarily means a chap won’t turn up in another one wearing leather murdering-gloves and a younger wig (grand barnet-work from Richard Mawbey the wigmeister, as men and women change decades in no time at all).

The youngest woman of the three is another incomparable dramatic comedienne, Lucy Briggs-Owen, a heroine of mine after lately lighting up evenings from Srtatford to St Martin’s Lane. Her second posh-airhead appearance is – well, nonpareil. I eschew spoilers, though there are at least four indescribable scream-and-giggle shocks and a magnificent three-woman physical cliffhanger not to be missed. No complaints about the men either: Robert Portal morphs over forty years from evil dodderer to dashing newlywed, and Matthew Cottle – also time-travelling – blinks and gapes for England as the hotel security man with a nervous dread of women and potential “lesbianity”. And talking of security, the 2020 bits are set in a London of gun battles on the Strand and precarious peace talks between warring boroughs. Sir Alan’s little joke, circa 1994: but hey, getting closer all the time…

Box office 020 7378 1713 to 27 June
rating four   4 Meece Rating


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