It's 40 years since this play, Alan Ayckbourn's first major work, premiered, and elements of it already seem as outdated as a Victorian melodrama.

Social-climbing couples keen to throw a cocktail party to impress a bank manager (remember them?) and so secure funding for his business is a staple of 70s sitcom. As such, many of the jokes are telegraphed: If there's a fly-spray, it's going to squirted, a door left ajar will be slammed shut and so on. There's plenty of slapstick and it's not exactly subtle.

Ayckbourn does well with the play's tripartite structure, where each third takes place in the home of the three couples: the ambitious Hopcrofts, the warring Jacksons and the solidly respectable Brewster-Wrights. And if the play starts off as threatening as an early evening slab of light entertainment, by the middle third it enters darker territory. It's hard to think of many writers who have set an entire scene around a woman trying to commit suicide while others are oblivious to her plight.

The heady mixture of black comedy and farce makes the middle segment the funniest by far. But the bleaker, final segment, where the successful middle-class couples literally end up dancing to the Hopcrofts' tune is eerily prophetic. Written two years before Thatcher's election as leader of the Conservatives, Hopcroft is an archetypal Thatcherite. His rise mirrors the way society has changed and it's fascinating to see how the vision has become a reality.

This revival is directed by Ayckbourn himself (he was in the audience laughing heartily at the gags) and adroitly mixes comedy and human observation.

There's particularly strong work from Sarah Parks as the alcoholic middle-class housewife and from Bill Champion as her ineffectual husband.  Laura Doddington shines as the cleanliness-obsessed Jane Hopcroft and while Ayesha Antoine, as the depressed Eva, conveys a personal despair while saying absolutely mute for the middle segment.

It's surely a play tailor-made for the Chichester audience. There was an audible gasp around me when the grimy state of Eva's oven was revealed - this is an audience well up on the social customs that Ayckbourn is satirising.

- by Maxwell Cooter

Photo: Robert Day