THEATRE / On the game: Paul Taylor on Alan Ayckbourn's Wildest Dreams at the Pit, London

Click to follow
What better way to beat those seasonal blues than a play, set at Christmas time, in which a homely housewife, who imagines that her husband is having an affair, regresses to second babyhood; in which a sex-starved sixth-former starts to believe that he's a superior-race alien; and in which a verbal bully loses the power of speech after a couple of paralysing strokes?

And that's not to mention the dodgy romance between a young lesbian who was sexually abused in childhood and her female lodger who is on the run from a violent spouse. Nor does it take into account the teacher (excellent Barry McCarthy) who not only has to face up to the fact that he's too old to be sexually desirable and that his wife has gone bananas, but accidentally does his back in, to boot. It makes your average fraught family Christmas look like the scene around the manger.

First unveiled in Scarborough in 1991, Alan Ayckbourn's Wildest Dreams is frequently very funny and the author's new, attractively cast RSC production is all the better for creating a less reassuring interplay between the high-class sitcom and the underlying desolation. The scene in which the brutal husband (Paul Bentall) breaks in and luxuriates in his power to humiliate the lesbian (Jenna Russell) is now genuinely chilling and her later revelation that her stepfather abused her has a bleak dignity.

It still strikes me as a nigglingly flawed work, though. As in Woman in Mind, Ayckbourn's focus is on the alternative fantasy lives into which the unfulfilled and the inadequate retreat. Here the fantasy is furnished by the

peculiar sci-fi-cum-Tolkien board game played once a week at the teacher's house where the players take on the portentous identity of their pieces. The participants' grip on reality is further loosened by the advent of Marcie (Sophie Thompson), one of those frightfully well-meaning gushers whose role in plays is to leave emotional havoc in their oblivious wake.

Even by the standards of a catalyst-figure, though, Marcie feels like a device rather than a person, her job to do circuits of the tripartite set and dispense cooing concern to all her new acquaintances. Once you start to think about her in her own right, she falls apart. What stops her, for example, from going to the police about her violent husband? The clever ending, in which the participants decide to opt for the board game rather than for reality, is likewise marred by the literal-minded questions it leaves dangling, - such as, where on earth did the infantilised wife (lovely Brenda Blethyn) get her adult baby clothes?

Barbican, EC1 071-638 8891

(Photograph omitted)