Taking Steps, first seen in London 30 years ago, is Alan Ayckbourn’s only outright farce, and the Orange Tree revival is doubly significant: it’s jaw-breakingly funny, and it’s directed by the author, making his debut in that capacity at the little Richmond in-the-round that is like a squashed version of his own back yard in Scarborough.
The play is dedicated to the grand old man of British farce, Ben Travers, and sure enough the action takes place in a creaky old cavern of a house, as in Thark, where a desperate fiancée is locked in an attic, and a hapless solicitor called Tristram is unwittingly seduced by the desperate housewife of the man trying to seal a deal on the place.
That man is a classic Ayckbournian suburban entrepreneur, Roland Crabbe, big in buckets and expanding into rubbish bins, who brings round a balding building buddy, Bainbridge, to test the spring in the floor and case the joint. At the same time, Roland’s wife, Elizabeth is trying to escape, while her brother Mark sends everyone to sleep the minute he opens his mouth.
It’s all brilliantly organized, and played in an epic three-dimensional madhouse with simultaneous action and cross-fades on different floors, characters tripping up invisible stairs round the edge like mincing fairies. Crabbe fuels them with copious amounts of alcohol before turning nasty: “I could make life very difficult for you if you ever wanted to get into hardware,” he tells Tristram.
The latter is played by Matthew Cottle like a seraphic, less hectic version of Richard Briers, and is totally delightful, bouncing off the booming tunnel-visioned Crabbe of an inspired, ridiculous Michael Simkins with a mixture of serenity and blankness that registers his total confusion at where he has ended up.
Anna Francolini is hilarious, too, as the hard-edged ex-dancer straining to be free while practicing her entre-chats, Stephen Beckett is her morose lump of a brother and Emily Pithon the poor mad woman in the attic (thank you, Charlotte Bronte).
And there is a perfect Bainbridge from Adrian McLoughlin, a beaming fixer of beams and RSJ’s wearing a terrifying biker’s helmet with a barathea blazer and a roly-poly smile. Comedy bliss.