THEATRE / No sex please: Paul Taylor reviews Ben Travers' The Bed Before Yesterday at the Almeida

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The Independent Culture
Watching The Bed Before Yesterday, I kept thinking of the Victoria Wood song 'Let's Do It' which proves that a woman on heat - 'I'm on fire / With desire / I could handle all the tenors in a male-voice choir' - can be funny in her own right, rather than just the comic nymphomaniac of male anxiety. The joke there is squarely on the man who'd be happier getting on with some grouting than in rising to the occasion.

What an easier world it presents that that found in Ben Travers' comedy, which was first produced in 1975 and is set in the Coronation Year, 1953. A similar situation crops up there when Alma (the excellent Brenda Blethyn), a plain potted-meat heiress who has spent '25 years in a nunnery of (her) own making', suddenly discovers her libido. Once turned on, she cannot be switched off, which is bad news for her gentlemanly third spouse Victor (Charles Kay), who only married her for her money. Sex gets in the way of his listening to the Test Match, so he takes to keeping out of harm's

way at Lord's.

It's a situation straight out of a Donald McGill cartoon, and if it remained that way we could simply say that it gets off to a very slow start, give it a statutory rap on the knuckles for political incorrectness, admit that we laughed despite ourselves, and have done with it. What makes the experience more thought-provoking, as well as distinctly uncomfortable, is the way Travers pushes the play on to look at the consequences of late-flowering lust for a woman such as Alma at that time.

The trouble is that he contrives a pile-up of humiliations for her that are embarrassingly in excess of requirements. Unable to find sexual satisfaction at home, she ventures abroad, but returns with a bleak story of having been swept to ecstasy and then violently fleeced by an Italian gigolo. Just in case she hasn't been disillusioned already, Travers arranges for her to arrive home to find her husband two-timing her with her cousin, proving that all his talk of being past it was a con. At the end, she is still prepared to allow the husband to satisfy, with her, the lust just aroused by her cousin. Does Travers realise, you wonder, just how inordinately his plot demeans her? You only hope that the Ode to Joy, which, in Peter Wood's skilful production, is played between these final encounters is intended ironically.

But if the play, without realising it, sometimes condescends to its central character, Brenda Blethyn's performance communicates Alma's drives and repressions with deadly seriousness and from her point of view. So even as the edgy control maniac at the start, or as the tottering, blissed- out robot in her post-orgasmic phase, she manages to be very funny without forfeiting respect.

The best bits are the scenes where Alma, eyes bulging, ears cocked, starts to get wind of the fact that some women actually take pleasure in sex. Her instincts give her intimations of what's to come, so when she's told, say, that 'sexual intercourse' is the polite term for activity in bed, it's libidinousness wish-fulfilment rather than disapproval that makes her snap, 'Oh rubbish, as if there could be a polite term for it . . . .' For the most part, though, you'll be writhing in your seats rather than rolling in the aisles.

Continues until 2 July at the Almeida (Box office: 071-359 4404)