Dinner guests from hell serve up three times the pleasure

Live x 3 | Lyttelton Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture

It's the social situation from hell. Imagine it: your promotion as a research scientist depends upon you and your wife wining and dining chez vous your smug superior and his put-upon spouse in cutting-edge cosmological studies. But whether it's through your mistake or theirs, they arrive a night earlier and find you in all your undoctored mess.

It's the social situation from hell. Imagine it: your promotion as a research scientist depends upon you and your wife wining and dining chez vous your smug superior and his put-upon spouse in cutting-edge cosmological studies. But whether it's through your mistake or theirs, they arrive a night earlier and find you in all your undoctored mess.

That is the scenario of Life x 3, the new comedy by Yasmina Reza, premiered now in a superbly cast and brilliantly timed production by Matthew Warchus in the National's Lyttelton Theatre.

The piece is adroitly translated by Christopher Hampton - his rendering of the titleperhaps not giving away the puckish and rather passionate twist Reza has given to the proceedings quite as directly as the original French (Trois Versions de la Vie). In its three scenes, her comedy hypothesises three different routes the evening could have taken.

The constants throughout are the personnel.

The visitors are Oliver Cotton's sublimely conceited and casually misogynist Hubert, a cosmologist superstar and ladykiller who in order to give his host a leg-up may require the hostess to give him a leg-over. His own spouse, in Imelda Staunton's immensely attractive performance, is a sensitive, inquiring woman stuffed for social purposes in a body-stocking of embattled sleekness.

Meanwhile, the scratch evening is precariously presided over by Harriet Walter's sulky and soignée Sonia, who veers between resentment of her husband's haplessness and acute understanding of it, and Mark Rylance who is in funny and heartwarming form as the nervy depressive Henry.

It's his prevaricating psychology, perhaps over-spelt out for us by his wife, that dictates the form of the play and its built-in alternatives. On each run-through, Hubert tries to undermine him by telling him that he has been pipped to the publishing post by another scholarly article on his pet subject: "the flatness of galaxy halos". It's the results of this tactic that alter.

I have never cared much for Reza 's work before now and had thought that Life x 3 might equal emptiness cubed. Instead, it amounts to pleasure-in-triplicate.

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