Semi Detached at the Chichester Festival Theatre

There isn't much Fred Midway doesn't know about social climbing. Keeping up appearances and with the Jones at the same time is something at which he's become an expert. That's not to say he doesn't have ambitions. 'One day I'd like to see up completely detached,' he tells wife Hilda, who aids and abets his manipulation of events to enhance their position in society.

Of course, none of this would be of much interest to us unless something went horribly wrong . Happily, this comedy by David Turner charts Fred's attempts to extricate himself from a set of circumstances that threaten to bring his beloved semi, with its through-lounge, crashing down around his head.

Turner's play was first produced at Coventry's Belgrade Theatre with Leonard Rossiter in the leading role although it was Laurence Olivier who starred as Fred in the West End transfer that followed in 1962. Now James Bolam, who played the Midway's son in that London production, takes over as Fred in this revival directed by Christopher Morahan.

The result is a curiously unsatisfying evening in the theatre. Is it a farce? Is it a satire? Or is it a social comedy, set in the early 1960s and reflecting the social aspirations of many people of the day, that has dated, giving it little more than curiosity value now? The production, which never seems quite sure quite how far to go for laughs, does little to answer these questions.

We can't help but be fascinated by Fred as he turns each fresh potential disaster to his own advantage, thanks to Bolam's devilish performance. His children may seem ungrateful by failing to fall in with his plans but as Fred says of daughter Eileen: 'She's our first born - she brought us together'. His actions may be devious but you can't help admire him.

Anna Carteret as his faithful wife Hilda is a joy. But too many of the supporting characters, especially his children, veer dangerously close to caricature and the cast's Brummie accents tend to come and go. The best comedy is rooted in truth and too much here resembles a poor TV sitcom. A little less emphasis all round would have helped no end.

Semi Detached continues in repertoire at Chichester Festival Theatre until August 7.

Steve Pratt