Durham's all-new Gala Theatre launches itself this week with a season of Alan Ayckbourn's "Damsels in Distress" trilogy - GamePlan, FlatSpin and RolePlay - which will run from 15 to 31 January 2002 before continuing on a UK tour. The Gala is the largest regional theatre to open in the UK in more than a decade and Durham’s first dedicated theatre for 50 years.

A Millennium City development, the purpose-built Gala complex also houses a cinema, tourist information centre, bars and restaurants. A launch "extravaganza" scheduled for this coming Saturday, and featuring pop band Westlife, has sold out. Theatrically, proceedings get underway well before the weekend with the opening of "Damsels in Distress", which begins tonight (Tuesday 15 January) with GamePlan.

GamePlan, FlatSpin and RolePlay are the prolific Ayckbourn's 58th, 59th and 60th plays, respectively. All three are entirely separate comedies, but they are written to be performed by the same cast, using the same set (a luxury apartment in the London Docklands). The original seven-strong company - Robert Austin, Saskia Butler, Bill Champion, Tim Faraday, Jacqueline King, Alison Parageter and Beth Tuckey - reprise their roles in each.

The trilogy, first seen last summer at Ayckbourn's own Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, is directed by the playwright. Set design is by Roger Glossop, with costumes by Christine Wall and lighting by Mick Hughes. Following Durham, the plays will continue on tour until the end of March, visiting Warwick, Worthing, Guildford and Oxford.

A West End transfer is expected later in the year. Ayckbourn's other recent London transfers include Things We Do for Love, the Olivier award-winning Comic Potential and his interrelated House and Garden, which were performed simultaneously on two stages by one cast at the National Theatre.

- by Terri Paddock