It's an elusive play in which the setting is susceptible to various interpretations. If, at times, it seems to be making a social comment (the cruel impersonality of the place an indictment of the off-stage world of the sane), at others it appears to stand, more existentially, for the human condition - along the lines of T S Eliot's East Coker: 'The whole earth is our hospital / Endowed by the ruined millionaire'. But there are other powerful moments when it is specifically identified with a decayed Britain, the play becoming in part an elegy for a nation that is in decline. This shifting quality adds to the drama's haunting force.
It's a shame that the memory of the Gielgud and Richardson performances in the first Lindsay Anderson production have prevented a major revival for almost a quarter of a century, for, as Paul Eddington and Richard Briers prove beyond doubt in David Leveaux's excellent revival, these are roles that can be richly inhabited by others.
Those who are familiar with these actors only in the time-warp of endlessly recycled episodes of The Good Life may be taken aback by the sight of the two of them now, sitting on what could be the terrace of a seaside hotel and looking far from untouched by age or, in Eddington's case, by serious illness. You are already feeling sad before a word has been spoken.
Briers plays Jack, the jaunty, expansive one with the rakish trilby and the card tricks; Eddington, resembling more than ever some puzzled, pained heron, is the more anxious and fastidious Harry, with the habit of over-prompt concurrence and of removing stray bits of cotton from his own and others' clothing. As they duet in elliptical, unfinished sentences, with many a darting-off into inconsequential stories about an improbable range of relatives, you get the aching sense that these comic, evasive platitudes are the fragments they are shoring against their ruins. Their true histories are clearly too agonising to be revealed; all they can do when conversation approaches that distressing no-go area is mist over briefly in silent tears.
If this pair have taken refuge behind a fragile front of extreme gentility, then it's their misfortune to encounter a couple of working-class female inmates, wonderfully played here by Rowena Cooper and Brenda Bruce, who have all the social delicacy of sniffer dogs.
Swollen-footed, Kathleen whoops with filthy laughter at the faintest double entendre, so I'd better not say that I wondered how Cooper managed to keep it up. Bruce's Marjorie has a beady matter-of-fact directness that pierces the men's defences like some prurient probe. Not that the women aren't hiding desolate secrets from one another. The intermittent presence of Alfred (Jason Pitt), a leucotomised young man who practises a strong-man act on the feather-light garden furniture, tricks you into thinking of the other four as essentially sane. A compassionate play, then, beautifully revived.
Continues at Wyndham's, London WC2. Box office: 071-369 1736