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Michael Coveney: New designs on old favourites as summer stays

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Michael Coveney
© Dan Wooller
Just as the sun has come out to stay, so has the super-dooper new re-design of WhatsOnStage, which looks even more like a good site to hang around than it did before. Clean, clear and user-friendly, that's the motto, just like the splendid revival of Alan Ayckbourn's Relatively Speaking which I caught up with at yesterday's matinee.

It's always a gauge of a West End mood, a mid-week matinee, and yesterday afternoon's crowd at the Wyndham's were definitely in a mood for light relief, classy comedy writing and a top notch acting performance led by Felicity Kendal, who seems so right on paper for Ayckbourn, and three actors who are, perhaps, more surprisingly cast.

And in Max Bennett's case, in the first scene, surprisingly naked. Lindsay Posner's revival makes it absolutely clear that Greg (Max Bennett) and Ginny (Kara Tointon), have spent a hard day's night together - the poster for that Beatles' film is on the wall - and as they slip in and out of the bathroom, Max also lets slip his bath towel, first revealing a flash of thigh, then a full moon exit, which sent a little frisson through the stalls and elicited a hint of a whimper from the lady sitting in front of me.

I did not remember a similar display from Richard Briers in the first production, though I do remember the huge and gorgeous laugh the peerless MIchael Hordern snared on the apparently innocent interjection, "What hoe?" which he also managed to inflect ambiguously as, "What-ho!"

Jonathan Coy in the Hordern role of Philip, Ginny's married older lover whom she's passing off to Greg as her dad, confirms his arrival in the front rank of light comedy actors following his antics in the Posner revival of Noises Off.

But whereas Hordern's delivery of the little line was part of his general comic fluster - and he flustered more brilliantly than anyone apart from Alastair Sim - Coy, having bemoaned the misplacement of his garden tool for two scenes, has suddenly become dangerously detached from his obsession by the farcical mistaken developments around the lunch table on the terrace. "What hoe?" now means, not "What hoe?" but "What the devil are you talking about and, now you come to mention it, what exactly is a hoe?"

This is brilliant acting, and a reminder of how brilliant writing, as Nicholas Hytner was saying the other day a propos of Shakespeare, leaves so much for the good actor to fill in, make something of, create character. Bennett and Tointon, too, make the difficulty of acting through misapprehension and surprise look far easier than it possibly can be. The whole escalation of the comedy depends on the precise timing of exits and entrances as webs are woven and explanations diverted.

And so it is: simple, precise, clear and very bright and charming to look at, just like the newly re-launched WhatsOnStage!

And it appears we've lost our little Dot Com, too, in the title. Maybe she'll emerge as a new character elsewhere, a combination of Doll Common in The Alchemist and Dot Cotton in Coronation Street. Glad to see the top hat still flying above the logo, though, adding just that bit of pezazz to what increasingly looks like an essential vademecum for all London theatre-goers, and beyond.

Theatrical pezazz of a different order is in plentiful supply in the Belarus Free Theatre's shocking (in a good way) Trash Cuisine at the Young Vic. Luckily I snacked on potted shrimp and smoked salmon before heading into the show; you certainly couldn't sit down to eat all that easily afterwards.

Trash Cuisine, as the title implies, is a human cookery show of death, torture, slaughter and destruction climaxing in a flour burst of terrorism and a concerted chorus line of machete-wielding, onion-chopping desperadoes.

It makes Titus Andronicus at Stratford-upon-Avon look like a chimpanzees' tea party. Much of the gruesome descriptions of execution techniques are taken from the authentic testimony of Thai and Belarusian executioners, and then filtered through passages of lyrical re-enactment and brutal modern dance.

It's probably the most important show about the misuse and barbarity of capital punishment since a student revue called Hang Down Your Head and Die was presented in the West End, at the brand new Mayfair Theatre, in 1964 by Michael Codron.

Codron presented the first London production of Relatively Speaking at the Duke of York's in 1967. So it's a wonderful coincidence that the next show to follow his own final work as a producer before retiring - the Rowan Atkinson revival of Quartermaine's Terms - into the Wyndham's, should be the first West End revival of what my WhatsOnStage colleague Mark Valencia has rightly termed a timeless comedy of sex, sherry and a tell-tale pair of slippers.