The Rehearsal by Jean Anouilh translated by Jeremy Sams at the Chichester Minerva Theatre.
The play within a play device is almost as old as theatre itself.
Shakespeare exploited it to great effect.
Assemble one group of people on stage then view them through the lens of performing a different play and the results are invariably revealing of a kaleidoscope of emotions.
The Rehearsal brings together the French aristocracy in 1950 and follows them over three days as they prepare to perform a classic written 250 years earlier.
Their production is part of a decadent party held at their chateau which houses both them and, in the adjoining wing thanks to an eccentric clause in a previous owner’s will, 12 young orphans.
The orphans are important. Not only are they part of the message of contrast which underpins so much of Anouilh but they also provide reason for a young and innocent young governess Lucile (Gabrielle Dempsey) to be part of the dramatis personae.
The Count (Jamie Glover), for whom taking a mistress is a casual part of everyday existence, is beguiled by her and in the process decides he has at last discovered true love.
Shakespeare in his lighter moments would have wrung every last drop of humour from this menage of many; but Anouilh takes a darker view.
He brutally, viciously exposes the falsity of their lives and the frailty of their nature - as he dismantles the social niceties of taking a lover from amongst your own ranks for diversion. The abandonment of the Countess for a passion joining experience and youth, hovers uncomfortably between mid life crisis and a journey of true self discovery.
Chichester, as ever, provides a wonderful set even within the confines of the Minerva; and the cast is exquisite with a blistering portrayal of a wife fighting for the status quo from the amazing Niamh Cusack.
But the night belongs to Edward Bennett as Hero, the Count’s life-long friend - whose performance of drunken seduction in the second half now forms part of the classic history of the theatre itself.