Virtual Reality at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough and on National Tour

Who are we? Where does our individuality come from? Does the 'self' exist without the existence of others? These are the questions that an existential Alan Ayckbourn is asking himself and his audience in his first play of the new millennium. In the course of two hours, Ayckbourn also manages to cover the usual ground: love, relationships and communication breakdowns.

Set in a future so near it resembles the present, an age of hands-free communication and trash television programmes, designer Alex Huby (Andrew Havill) is finding it increasingly difficult to communicate with anyone. Particularly his wife Penny (Celia Nelson) who is too wrapped up in presenting tabloid show 'Who, What, Where' and talking on her mobile phone to spend any time listening to her husband.

For some reason Alex and Penny are regarded by their friends Barney (Richard Derrington) and Beth (Susie Blake) as the perfect couple, the rock by which reality is judged. Which means that when Alex copes with his mid-life crisis by embarking on an affair with aspiring (ie hopeless) young actress Cassie (Daisy Beaumont) an entire house of cards collapses. Beth and Barney separate, the thrill of the affair quickly wears off and Alex is left longing to escape reality.

Ayckbourn's penchant for faulty technology gets yet another airing with his Viewdo 2000 Mk. 6 McGregor unit - a virtual reality scene of a virtual garden complete with virtual Scottish gardener (Mike Raffone) who virtually prunes the virtual roses in all kinds of virtual weather. There it is, a centre stage executive toy that springs to life between darker moments. But we've been here before, haven't we? You just know at some point it will develop a fault and get the biggest laugh.

The Viewdo forms part of Roger Glossop's ingenious set. Away from the all-seeing confines of theatre-in-the-round, Glossop has gone to town providing revolving and sliding sections of set for this end-stage production. Commendably clever, the set also allows simultaneous events to take place.

This piece is darker than usual for Ayckbourn but certainly thought provoking enough, although the speed with which the affair turns into co-habiting is hard to accept (after two nights of not even coming close to having sex with Cassie, Alex decides to leave Penny for her), and the female characters are all much of a muchness - going through life shouting, which appears to be a loud device to represent empowerment.

The strong cast oozes quality. There are some nice comic touches along the way and some wonderful observations about the craft of performance. Virtual Reality has all the components, virtual or otherwise, to please Ayckbourn fans.

Dave Windass

Touring until 5 August 2000