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The Independent Culture

The schoolchildren in the large co-educational parties at the Royal Exchange Theatre must have wondered what on earth all the fuss was about in John Dighton's period comedy The Happiest Days of Your Life. Two boarding-schools are billeted together in wartime England. Thanks to a ministry blunder, Hilary Hall, a school for boys, is forced to play host to a girls' establishment. The recipe for disaster works like a charm, and in those dim old days of strictly segregated education, the consternation and confusion that ensues is huge.

Goodness knows what the schoolgirls wearing the Islamic hijab in the audience made of it all. This peculiarly British brand of slightly hysterical humour, the obsession with stereotyping males and females alike, and the absurd and duplicitous lengths to which these caricatures we recognise as people in authority will go to maintain the status quo must seem totally alien.

Braham Murray has assembled a stalwart cast for this romp, with Janet Henfrey particularly sterling as the straitlaced headmistress, and Philip Madoc a flustered, blustering headmaster.

As Miss Gossage and Miss Harper respectively, Joanna Riding and Anna Hewson spread a lot of cheer and, with just a few flowers and a chintzy cover or two, successfully infiltrate the bachelor fiefdom of Simon Higlett's delightfully dusty common-room set. James Cash and Simon Robson give nicely characterised performances as the two schoolmasters drawn into this farcical battle of the sexes, but top marks go to Claire Lams and Simon Watts as the lively teenage troubleshooters.

The lewdly in-your-face contortions into which the masters and mistresses find themselves helplessly tied, thanks to a usefully long telephone cord, raised the biggest laugh of all from the kids. The more subtle jokes and the wordplay at which Dighton excels clearly amused the older age group. And the ridiculousness of it all rang just enough bells with the over-forties to make us shake our heads and be glad that, whatever the shortcomings of today's education system, it has got better...

Nothing, it seems - even the unfortunate indisposition of the actor playing the school porter - could dampen this production's irrepressible high spirits. Out of several show-stealing moments, from the prankish loggerheads at which the two schools constantly find themselves, to a nimble turn by the "hearty Amazon" jolly-hockey-sticks Miss Gossage, Emil Wolk's manic choreography of the ludicrous final scene is just one highlight. It could be one of the happiest evenings of your life.

To 17 January (0161-833 9833)