THEATRE / It's still the same old story: Paul Taylor reviews Nice Dorothy

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The Independent Culture
IT'S ALL right for the likes of Joan Collins, who'll never see 59 again yet swans round with a 33-year-old Old Etonian art dealer in tow. Nobody would shout 'so how was it for you, grandma?' at her. But put yourself in Dorothy's sensible shoes. Fifty-something, untrained, living off a small private income and never yet touched by a man: she's the kind of person who would think 'beef- jerky' was just a dubious item on a Chinese menu.

An incontrovertibly nice woman, Dorothy (Auriol Smith) works for the Samaritans and pays regular visits to her ageing mother at the old people's flats. She also - in perhaps too obliging an effort to help us place her - likens herself to those thoroughly pointless people who crop up in the plays of Chekhov. Supposing, though, she were to fall, swiftly and totally, for Trevor (Timothy Watson), a sexy 20-something with time on his hands and the will to reciprocate.

This is the proposition that kickstarts David Cregan's new comedy Nice Dorothy, now to be seen in Sam Walters' enjoyable, skilfully judged production at the Orange Tree. From the outside, it's the batty, farcical side of the normal world that the play holds up to inspection - the opening episode, for example, shows us two cantankerous oldsters locking zimmer frames in a furious dispute over right of way on the garden path of the flats. Order and calm are seen to be the ludicrously easy prey of impulse. 'It's a mess, a real mess, life - a kind of skip,' Dorothy opines, but her capitulation to erotic desire only increases the murky turbulence in the lives of those round her.

Frank Moorey's Hugh, also saddled with an elderly parent and one of nature's insurance men, longs 'to fit like a piece of wood in someone else's jigsaw' and is driven to incredulous distraction to find that Dorothy's 'warm bum' is not available for being snuggled against. Harbouring the hots for Trevor, promiscuous unshockable Judy (Amanda Royle) is for once morally scandalised and vengefully jealous, while the old, infirm parents panic about where they and their zimmer frames will stand if Dorothy and Trevor marry.

The actors, it has to be said, don't really give the impression that this oddly matched couple have tasted sexual ecstasy together. So the awkwardly written speeches in which Trevor explains why he's in love with Dorothy (because of her longer life, apparently, he thinks he's 'tasted all the salts of living' during sex with her) grate all the more. 'Do you all have those hidden places I knew nothing about?' she asks one of Trevor's friends later, coitus not having yet cured her of that brightly babbling, spinstery eccentricity. The only flat-out mistake of tone, though, is the opportunistic use of Aids at the 11th hour.

Where both play and production succeed very well is in creating a world where the struggle to make sense of life can be felt in its sharpness and intractability almost by virtue of the light, skimming irreverence of the manner. This embraces everything from broad sea-side postcard stuff to the subtle comic tangles of abortive conversations. A ticklish directing assignment, though, you'd have thought, for Sam Walters, since Ms Smith, who plays Dorothy, is Mrs Walters. There's a play in there somewhere.