Theatre: Way of the worldly

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A PRODUCTION of a play is a complicated mix of ingredients, and its staging an attempt to produce the perfect theatrical souffle night after night. Few productions achieve the cordon bleu standard. However, Jonathan Church's production of Colombe, which marks the end of his plaudit- laden spell as artistic director of Salisbury Playhouse, wins him his third Michelin star.

He has blended a bittersweet script with a cast which offers talent and depth. Jean Anouilh's play tells the story of Colombe (Carolyn Backhouse), a virginal innocent whose husband Julien (Damien Goodwin) - a man of high standards and high dudgeon - leaves her in the care of his actress mother (Kate O'Mara) while he performs his National Service.

Dazzled by the Technicolor world of the theatre, Colombe loosens her stays - both mental and physical - with the assistance of Julien's charmingly shallow brother Armand (Matthew Whittle). When Julien returns, he finds his wife has - depending on your point of view - descended into trollopery or discovered her true personality beyond her husband's shadow.

Colombe resounds with Anouilh's leitmotivs of the corruption of purity and the loss of innocence in a world dominated by compromise, money and the search for gratification. It carefully avoids simplistic messages by making all its characters equally (un)appealing, and it is hard to judge whether the changes which overcome Colombe are a blow for the liberation of women or an indictment of the amoral, candyfluff egocentricity of actors.

But there is a great deal of wit enveloping this bleak serving of 20th- century disillusionment, which draws on the full spectrum of French theatrical tradition from Racine to Feydeau. Jeremy Sams's translation strikes a near-perfect balance between period authenticity and modern comprehensibility. The contempor- ary styling of the dialogue allows Anouilh's sharp-eyed psychological realism to strike right at the audience's heart without the intervening frosting of period language.

The end-product is funny and moving. This finely crafted piece of intelligent, entertaining theatre is a worthy parting performance by Jonathan Church, and one for which the good burghers of Salisbury should be duly thankful.

Runs until 17 April. Box Office: 01722 320333