RolePlay is easily the best of Alan Ayckbourn's "Damsels in Distress" trilogy and has, accordingly, been moved into pole position for the duration of the plays' West End season, appearing daily, with the other two only available as part of the trilogy Saturdays that remain.

While the same company of seven actors perform in all three plays, RolePlay is the one that was written last, specifically with these actors in mind, affording them all moments to shine. It's also the play in which Ayckbourn's comic motor runs fastest and dizziest, and his characters come most fully and plausibly to life.

In fact, it's Ayckbourn at his classic best, even if he re-visits the familiar terrain of the dinner party from hell where a couple - entertaining their respective awful parents - have to juggle with everything going wrong. It all starts with a neighbour (Alison Pargeter) literally dropping in from the apartment above as she tries to escape the clutches of her minder (Tim Faraday); but she's not the only damsel who ends up distressed by what follows.

All the women here are variously distressed or at least drunk. As the party hostess Julie-Ann, Saskia Butler is a stickler for order and control, over everything and everyone, including her soon-to-be-hapless husband Justin (Bill Champion), and around whom chaos can therefore only ensue. Her mother (Beth Tuckey) is put upon by her father (Robert Austin), and is an unhappy picture of what Julie-Ann will surely become. Meanwhile, when Justin's mother Arabella (Jacqueline King) arrives well and truly sozzled, further comic disruption is assured.

But it's Pargeter's hilarious yet touching performance as the amnesiac gangster's moll Paige Petite who defines the show's comic heartbeat as well as its tragic undercurrent. Hers is one of the performances of the year from an actress currently giving three of the performances of the year in the complete trilogy; but she's also part of a superb ensemble.

- Mark Shenton

Note: The following review dates from September 2001 and this production's original run at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Guess who's coming to dinner. Yes, it's her mummy and daddy, driving down in this dreadful storm from Yorkshire, and his mother being driven up from Godalming by her latest unsuitable boyfriend. Dinner is in the Docklands apartment of Justin (Bill Champion) and his co-nerd partner Julie-Ann (Saskia Butler), and the occasion is to announce their engagement.

As they await the arrivals, who should drop in, literally, but Paige (Alison Pargeter), an ex-lap dancing boxer's moll from upstairs, who has jumped out of her apartment window to escape her minder and who has managed to catch on to Justin's veranda on her fall towards the angry Thames. She is soon followed - via the door - by said gorilla, Micky (Tim Faraday) who, we are unsurprised to discover, packs a pistol in his pocket.

Thus is the trigger cocked by the UK theatre's master-craftsman, Alan Ayckbourn. Unfortunately, the mechanics are too clearly visible. When Julie, a domestic obsessive, is noted to sing in an unfeasibly high-pitched voice whenever she washes up, and when she chides her man for "sulking", the experienced Ayckbourn-watcher knows that jokes are being set up. And when she remarks some minutes later that "You'll love Mummy - she's just like me!", we know precisely that mother, when she arrives, will waste no time in (a) donning the marigolds and trilling like a demented canary and (b) admonishing her daughter for sulking. Timed beautifully, of course, and deserving of laughs, but still there is the strongest feeling that our craftsman has neglected to build an adequately interesting toy around his clockwork mechanism.

Ayckbourn's recent biography encourages students to fossick in his plays to find the sources of his characters. Here, Justin's mother, in a wonderfully disgraceful performance from Jacqueline King, is an accident-prone and batty lush who falls in through the front door in emulation of an episode in the life of the author's mother; whilst Julie's father (Robert Austin) is one of the 1960s school of George C Cooper strutting northern bigots, apparently modelled on Ayckbourn's Scarborough theatre's chairman.

Unusually for this writer, comedy which would be character-driven falls back on tired ciphers. Only Paige is given any depth of vulnerability. There are jokes, some of them indeed very funny, but they are hitched to a plot that doesn't so much creak as clank like a freight trainload of pig-iron.

Rehearsal room scuttlebutt has it that the decision to change "Damsels in Distress" from a matching pair to a trilogy was last minute, and that as the final addition, RolePlay was tossed off as an Ayckbourn afterthought. It certainly has the air of a piece that made greater demands on his wrist than his mind.

- Ian Watson (reviewed at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre)