THEATRE / Wide skirts and tight corners: The Coaldust Affair - Liverpool Unity

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The miniaturisation of a small-scale tour cannot of course extend to the actors, but there does seem to be something just slightly out of physical proportion in this ATC British premiere prouction of Eugene Labiche's 19th-century farce. The set is made up of three close walls, indicating that the Lenglume household falls distinctly short of the spacious bourgeois elegance to which it aspires.

Put two well-built actors like John Ramm (Lenglume) and Simon Dutton (Mistingue) in there, and give Joan Moon (Madame Lenglume) the kind of widespread crinolines that promise inadvertent disaster to occasional tables within a wide radius, and there is scarcely room to light a cheroot. Fortunately no one has to, but these three do have to negotiate a silver-service three-course lunch at a tiny folding table, and the men conduct some serious scrubbing at a wash-stand. There is a hint of overcrowded desperation about all this business, a perpetual anxiety that the complicated world of inanimate objects is going to slip out of control.

But whether by accident or David Blight's design, this constriction turns out to be a neat metaphor for the action of The Coaldust Affair. To begin with, nothing fits. Justin, the manservant, finds two pairs of boots, not one, in the morning, two coats, two waistcoats but 'not a trace of trouser'. When Lenglume lumbers forth with an amnesiac hangover, he discovers he has come home with Mistingue, once the Latin prize scholar at his old school. It seems that, at the reunion dinner the night before, Lenglume's 'thoughts were at sea from the salad on' and he is still - at least in Robert David MacDonald's witty translation - having trouble distinguishing cravats and crevettes.

He has just marshalled these events sufficiently to sit down to lunch with Madam and his embarrassing old acquaintance when a newspaper, some pieces of charcoal and an umbrella with a monkey's head handle conspire to be either absent or incongruously present to such effect that he and Mistingue are brought to believe themselves triple murderers and, with tell-tale soot on their guilty hands, in imminent danger of discovery.

How has all this come about? Well, as is the way with farce, before the doors start revolving, the hinges of coincidence have to be intricately constructed. Suffice it to say here that it is a casual ruse by Justin to conceal from Madame that he has loaned her newspaper to the kitchen staff that sets off the chain reaction of comical non- events. It is cutely paradoxical, incidentally, that Justine is the only figure who seems in scale and deft enough to operate in this house of moveables. At one point he even whips a tablecloth from under a tray of glasses. In his small but pivotal role John Padden gives much the funniest and most accomplished performance of the evening. He is a lizard that can wink, slipping up to and through doors, darting and freezing with the utmost insouciance and a streak of insolence. Following his very different debut in Marching Song at Theatr Clwyd last year, here is surely a distinctive young actor of great promise.

As a whole, Jane Collins' production, enlivened by skilful part- singing of Peter Fischer's attractive music, is always entertaining and has clearly been carefully worked. It is never really uproarious however. As Mistingue Simon Dutton has the waxy disreputable cafe-table cast of the Parisian period, but the bulk of the scenes with John Ramm's Lenglume, whose repertoire of wide-eyed palpitation is a little too limited, though amusing and enjoyable, never quite reach the desired state of delirium.

Further performance of The Coaldust Affair at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool tonight (booking: 051-709 6502); then tours until the end of March (information: 0865 511065).

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