After all the re-writes, the third act is still not as convincing or conclusive as everyone wants it to be, but the audience is so wrung dry and so exhausted with laughter they are metaphorically yanking the curtain down along with the actors, hanging from it like wet rags.
Brainy farce is a curious concept but that is what Michael Frayn has written using all the clichés of dropped trousers, mis-timed entrances, crossed wires and rogue properties to duplicate the onstage confusion with backstage mayhem in a relentlessly clever farcical echo chamber.
In the play-within-a-play, a tax exile is caught up in his own country home with an estate agent showing a young female colleague the ropes, his befuddled house-keeper and an unexpected burglar.
The complexities of the plot are extended into the difficulties of the rehearsal, then the performance; and then, beyond that, into the discomfiture of the actors themselves and the accumulating pressures of close contact in “going over the top” on tour.
Even the director, Lloyd Dallas, exasperatedly supervising the final “technical,” and desperately improvising “motivations” for unexplained exits and boxes is sucked inexorably into the vortex of his own devising when he arrives backstage during a fateful matinee in Stockton-on-Tees.
Lloyd, skiving off from his next job, directing Richard III in Aberystwyth (the lead actor has gone down with a back problem), has unwittingly created his own sex farce in two-timing the put-upon stage manager, Poppy Norton-Taylor, and the lissom ingénue with unreliable contact lenses, Brooke Ashton.
These two are very well played by the newcomers to the cast: Alice Bailey Johnson, making her professional debut, as Poppy, all baggy jumpers, good nature and exploited docility; and a stunning Lucy Briggs-Owen whose unselfconscious traipsing up and down the stairs in mauve lingerie is an illicit farcical treat in itself.
Otherwise, Celia Imrie as a slovenly housekeeper with a brilliantly chaotic way of re-writing every line to sound funnier than it was originally, Jamie Glover as a boomingly self-assured leading man, Janie Dee as the company gossip and mother hen, and Robert Glenister as the combustible director, all recreate their sterling performances.