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Theatre: Basset hounds the pretenders

THE TERMINOLOGY of the Venetian card game of Basset trips off the tongue about as readily as the Ten Commandments do these days. In Wild Iris's superbly arch revival of Susanna Centlivre's feisty 1705 comedy, produced in association with Bristol Old Vic, director Polly Irvin compounds our sense of exclusion from this arcane pursuit by showing a session in which the players sit huddled over their cards, their backs to the audience, giving out out cries of "I mase double" and "This trante and leva makes some amends".

It's the one point where Irvin faces the action inward and the only time we see the eponymous table close-up (it is glimpsed reflected in a tilted backstage mirror at the start). The deliberate inscrutability and guardedness creates a defining image of Centlivre's appraisal of relations between the sexes: that deception and stratagem are the rule.

For the rest of the play, the actors address their every word and gesture in as extravagant and stylised a manner as possible, generating a sense of period parody. Lady Reveller, a widow who has developed a wild passion for Basset, fills her uncle Sir Richard Plainman's house with creatures whose posturing prevents them from forming the attachments they hanker after. Lord Worthy, priggish despiser of the game, worships Lady Reveller; his louche friend Sir James Courtly flirts both with her and her pious cousin Lady Lucy; Sir Richard's daughter, Valeria, is ordered to marry a sea-captain but desires a foppish ensign.

This tangled state of affairs is resolved by Sir James's wiles, which veer between harmless fun and disturbing force; at one point, he switches from playing the rake to playing the rapist to trick Lady Reveller into Worthy's arms.

There is no attempt to play a single line with real feeling. Irvin surrounds everything with invisible quotemarks, undercuts the most adamant statement with a batty visual interjection. Blasts of rock music accompany baroque entrances and exits and finally drown out the mingled trills of harpsichord. Harriet Thorpe's Lady Reveller sweeps imperiously round Atlanta Duffy's warped set. It's the topsy-turvy embodiment of a gambling clique chancing their fortunes while their compatriots sleep.

Among a generally strong cast, mention must be made of Mike Hayley as the barking seadog Firebrand, Sara Powell's airy, philosophy-crazed Valeria and Patti Love's simpering Mrs Sago, a coquette who ruins her husband with her reckless gaming. Though Sago's fortune is restored and marital relations mended, the good news is delivered with an irony that retains faith with Centlivre's bemused vision: plain dealing between the sexes was never a safe bet.

Booking 0171-328 1000. To 11 July.

Dominic Cavendish