A storm may be brewing over London's Docklands at the opening of the third play in Alan Ayckbourn's Damsels in Distress trilogy, but that's just a hint of the explosion to come when Justin and Julie-Ann attempt to host a dinner party for their respective parents to announce their engagement. As they prepare, hints of trouble ahead are already apparent, both through Yorkshire lass Julie Ann's highly-strung brittleness and the phone calls from Justin's already pickled mother. It is only when ex lap dancer and gangster's moll Paige Petite literally drops onto the balcony from the penthouse suite upstairs, however, that things really start cooking.
What follows once the parents arrive is a devastating portrait of turn of the century Britain riven by a north-south and class-based divide, where the only thing that's on an equal footing is a destructively cloying patriarchal conformity. Director Richard Baron navigates a cast led by Christopher Price as Justin and Kirsty Mackay as Julie-Ann along a magnificent tightrope of tragi-comic grotesquerie, so by the end you're practically willing Justin to go on the run with Gemma McElhinney's already reinvented Paige, saviour complex and all.
While McElhinney taps into Paige's contrary complexities with a fearless mix of vulnerability and in-yer-face emancipation, it is Amanda Osborne as Ab Fab style casualty Arabella who blurts out the play's funniest line. In a world where even Paige's lunk-headed minder Micky finds a sense of freedom while the real bad guys get what's coming to them, the sozzled politesse with which it is delivered sums up the enormity of the social gulf she and everyone else totters so unsteadily between with comic class in abundance.
The Herald, July 18th 2016