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Communicating Doors (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Lindsay Posner's production of this rarely performed Ayckbourn play opened last night

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Even when you don't love an Alan Ayckbourn play - as is the case with Communicating Doors, a messily contrived thriller comedy of twenty years ago - you end up admiring it. And Lindsay Posner's second production this week (following Hay Fever at the Duke of York's) concludes strongly with a firm statement of feminist solidarity.

There's a farcical metaphor in this as the two murdered wives of a corrupt businessman and the rubber-clad dominatrix he summons to sign a confession at the end of his life find themselves entwined, leaning over a sixth floor hotel balcony, bottoms proud and legs akimbo.

So far so confusing? The play is set in three time zones - 2020, 2000, 1980 - in the one anodyne luxurious hotel suite, designed by Richard Kent, and combines elements of time-travelling - as in Dr Who and the plays of J B Priestley - the Psycho shower scene, boulevard farce à la Cooney and high comedy à la Coward. Only Ayckbourn would have the audacity to attempt a fusion of so many disparate genres.

We start with Poopay (Rachel Tucker), the dominatrix, providing an unexpected service for Robert Portal's alarmingly senile Reece - a drawn and wasted figure held together with hospital tubing - and departing through a door that deposits her in the same room 20 years earlier, warning Reece's second wife, Ruella (Imogen Stubbs), of the fate in store for her.

While Poopay pops back to the present, Ruella runs back to the future to find the first wife, Jessica (Lucy Briggs-Owen), and set off more alarm bells. The hotel bedroom door, which revolves, illuminated, like Dr Who's Tardis, operates quite wilfully, so you never know, literally, whether you're coming or going, and this makes the play hard to follow, and harder to care about - until it all comes together, sort of, in the second act, which is far superior to the first.

Two classic Ayckbourn characters loiter in the margins of the action: Reece's sinister henchman Julian, played with a manic, vein-popping intensity by David Bamber, and the hotel security man Harold Palmer, whom the resourceful Matthew Cottle turns into a matter-of-fact jobsworth fascinated by the seemingly louche alliances pursued on his beat (he reminded me of the hotel manager in a Cooney farce who calls time on the shenanigans by declaring,"There's too much sex going on in this hotel; and I'm not having any of it.")

And smooth farce is where we are finally going here, with Portal returning, triumphantly, as his smoother, charming younger self, and the increasingly funny Briggs-Owen and the increasingly stylish Stubbs (despite a terrible wig) striking conspiratorial sparks off each other like Ruth and Elvira in Blithe Spirit. But, still, you could be forgiven for leaving the theatre with the question, "Well, what was all that about, then?" still playing on your lips.

Communicating Doors runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 27 June 2015. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

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