The device at the heart of Shaffer’s brilliant farce, borrowed from Chinese theatre, is the reversal of darkness and light. The play begins in blackout, and the initially baffled audience are introduced to characters they cannot see. In the darkness, we learn that a young sculptor, Brindsley, is anxious to impress a rich dealer, as well as his ‘monster’ future-father-in-law. When he announces "we've blown a fuse," the stage suddenly blazes with illumination. This pays off richly in two ways. For a start, there is the physical fun of seeing the host stumbling around in the supposed dark, trying to replace the antique furniture he has pinched from a precious neighbour.
Without pushing the point, Shaffer also suggests that darkness discloses hidden truths: only in the blackout does Brindsley discover that he is far closer to a suddenly reappearing old flame than to his snobbish fiancée.
However, the real joy of the piece lies in its highly disciplined account of the hero's disintegration, superbly played here by Toby Pattinson as the harassed sculptor. As the evening unfolds, he scrabbles desperately to cover up the tissue of lies he has concocted, with increasingly hilarious results.
The play throws characters from wildly differing backgrounds into uncomfortably close quarters, and much of the comedy derives from their divergent views: bohemian conceptual artists bump up against pompous traditionalists, and the daughter of a teetotal Baptist minister finds herself sharing a sofa with a gin-swilling deb. Nina Churchill is fabulously ghastly as Carol, reaching a pitch only bats can hear as she berates the long-suffering Brindsley and her rival for his affections, Harold Gorringe (Rider Hartley).
The role of Clea – Brindsley’s glamorous ex-girlfriend – was originally played by Maggie Smith, but the dame herself might be jealous of the poise and allure Will Hope brings to the role, tottering impressively on five inch heels. Harry Remnant, having been promoted from his traditional role as butler, gives a brilliant cameo as the billionaire Bamburger, competing with Otto Rothwell-Hurley for the Oscar for ‘Most-Ridiculous-Mittel-European-Accent’.
The show is stolen, however, by Tim Lovick and Mungo McLaggan as Colonel Melkett and Miss Furnival. Lovick’s braying, impressively moustachioed colonel stalks around the stage like an enraged hippopotamus, whilst McLaggan gives us a marvellous rendition of the repressed spinster, bewailing the rise of sex and supermarkets.
The last few years have seen the theatre produce some extraordinary sets – life-size fighter jets, windows into other worlds and 1950s diners. None can compete, however, with the truly horrific 1960s wallpaper conjured up by Niki Holmes for this production; you may need your sunglasses for the colour scheme, let alone the strobe lighting!
I came straight to the dress rehearsal from the Moser Library, where the sweat of intellectual endeavour was dripping from many a fevered brow. Richard Hudson’s uproarious production will provide a perfect respite: there are times when we all just need a good giggle!