A metaphorical Bulgarian farce might not sound like a recipe for a good night out, but Stanislav Stratiev’s 1974 The Roman Bath, wittily adapted by Justin Butcher from a literal translation by producer Anna Karabinska-Ganev, is an engaging, pungent satire on finding yourself stateless in your own home.
The play is a product of the Cold War era, and Russell Bolam’s production retains the period “feel” of bleak, bottom-line austerity, as an innocent office-worker, Ivan Antonov, returns from a holiday by the sea to find his apartment invaded by builders, officials and a television crew.
It turns out that the flat he was born in is the site of a Roman bath complete with naked matrons dating from the reign of the Emperor “Pimpilianus” and therefore of immense cultural significance. He tries to get on with his life while becoming a spectator to its dismantling in the name of excavation.
He can’t even take a bath in his own bath. Gradually, the investigative, invasive campaign eclipses the irrelevant matter of his own dignity and well-being. An academic (Bo Poraj) accuses him of putting personal convenience above the public interest. A curator of fine art (Jonathan Rhodes) dangles the prospect of a cash killing with the cultural bigwigs and UNESCO.
And officialdom comes calling in the shape of a lunatic lifeguard (Lloyd Woolf) who commandeers the bath because of the pool shortage - and lavishes an exaggerated life-saving routine on anyone who goes near the four-square-metre oasis - and a lascivious estate agent (Wendy Wason) who has big development ideas curiously expressed in a striptease performance of “Hey, Big Spender” from Sweet Charity.
Bolam and his designer Jean Chan have converted the Arcola acreage into a building site of plastic sheeting, piled up furniture, sand and cement, and Gary Yershon has composed a wacky, wheeezy soundtrack of official-sounding folk music.
The action, though, becomes more frantic than funny in a space unkind to accumulative farce, despite the best efforts of Ifan Meredith as the Kafkaesque anti-hero who warms to his task as a simple sucker with the redeeming compensation of Rhona Croker’s glowing girlfriend.