Three daughters trailing their husbands and lovers return to their middle- class family to celebrate their parents' wedding anniversary. Pregnant Jenny is the organiser whose plans are thrown into confusion when Deirdre arrives with a spanner in the works in the form of James, her boyfriend of 24 hours' standing. Last to arrive are tough Polly, "never really happy unless she's having a row with someone", and her wet, fretting husband David. No one, it seems, is happy with their partner. As their irascible, dahlia-obsessed father (Mark Kingston, on a permanent thunderously rolling boil) remarks, "We all marry the wrong people." Cue Jenny's bombshell: Father is plotting to murder mother, the alternately placatory and reproving Auriol Smith.
Just when it looks like everything is set up for a standard comedy-thriller, Ayckbourn springs his trademark surprise. Dogged naturalism goes out the window and the play turns into a farcical cross between Three Sisters and King Lear as the second scene opens with the daughters married to each other's husbands. The rest of the evening feels like a nightmare Home Counties comic spin on When We Are Married, with the audience switching between laughing at the lunatic antics of everyone trying to stop a suspected murder and sobering up to Ayckbourn's chilly view that, despite Tolstoy's remark, unhappy marriages are all alike.
Director Sam Walters milks every laugh from the material with a cast of Ayckbourn stalwarts. Occasionally, characterisations are overplayed, but Damien Matthews is hilariously baffled by the horrors of a family at full throttle, Philip York is marvellously relaxed as the bombastic Oliver and Emma Gregory is spot on as boisterous Deirdre, for whom coming home induces the reverse of homesickness.
The in-the-round seating of The Orange Tree is perfect for the hilarity of husbands and wives coming and going at alarming speed, and there are glorious moments like the beautifully set up climax where Jenny Funnell as Polly assaults her husband with the biscuit tin, but ultimately Ayckbourn's invention outruns the dramatic content. It's not in the same league as Absurd Person Singular, the early masterpiece that follows it, but that would be hoping for too much.
The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, Surrey. Booking: 0181-940 3633. To 16 Feb.Reuse content