Easy Virtue at the Chichester Festival Theatre

Meeting your only son s new wife for the first time can be difficult for any parent. When the woman in question turns out to be older, divorced and American, the situation can only lead to tears. Or, when the author of the piece is Noel Coward, a great deal of laughter as well - along the way to a downbeat finale.

Set in the 1920s, Maria Aitken's finely-detailed, beautifully-staged revival is good at capturing the pretensions and posturing of upper class country life of the time. There is much fun indeed to be had watching Wendy Craig (looking for all the world like the double of our own dear Queen) who presides over the household as narrow-minded Mrs Whittaker while Michael Jayston tries to keep a low profile as her brow-beaten but understanding (of others if not his wife) husband Colonel Whittaker. Two daughters, repressed Marion (Jenny Quayle) and hyperactive Hilda (Elizabeth Dermot Walsh), and ineffectual son John (Andrew Clover) complete this unappealing family.

You can imagine Mrs Whittaker s horror at the unexpected arrival home of John and his new bride Larita, especially when it emerges that she is a woman with a shady past. As strikingly played by Greta Scacchi, Larita is a glamorous and free-willed woman under the mistaken impression that she'll be able to skirt around the moral conventions of British society and be allowed to fit in. Her slow realisation that the Whittakers will not forget her previous indiscretions makes for vicious confrontations and inevitable heartache - love, in this case, does not conquer all.

There s no shortage of witty one-liners and comic put-downs, as you'd expect from Coward, but some may find the humour doesn t always sit easily with the emotional turmoil that Larita is going through. Not that this is a reflection on Scacchi s performance. She is truly excellent, especially during the showdown at the country house dance which makes the gunfight at the OK corral look tame by comparison.

After its initial London and New York productions, Easy Virtue disappeared for more than 60 years. A pity because it s a constantly intriguing, always entertaining play. Chichester has chosen well, and boldly, for its tribute to Noel Coward in his centenary year.

Easy Virtue continues in repertoire until October 2.

Steve Pratt