Haywire - Altrincham Little Theatre

HARRASSED bookshop owner Alec (Chris Burton) is living proof that you can, if proof were needed, wear cardigans and still be a sexual being.

He's also living proof that you should never judge a book by its cover - no pun intended. For the sly old dog is plotting a few days in the sun with his mistress.

But will his family scupper his plans? The first complication arrives in the shape of his elderly mother, who has absconded from the nursing home se lived in. My contact at ALT told me Janet Reidsma was never going to take to the stage again. Why? As Phoebe, Alec's mum, she delivers a superbly pitched piece of character acting and there are some memorable spats between her and Burton, a comedy natural, to enjoy.

This is, unfortunately, one of those occasions when the cast is actually better than the play. Some of the jokes in the firsttwo acts are as flat as a bowl of yesterday's punch. But the piece, from the pen of Eric "Rising Damp" Chappell, creator of one of the best ever British sitcoms, becomes far funnier and pacier after the interval.

Under the very capable direction of Garth Jones, Alec, Phoebe, Jamie and Mandy look a sound like a real family and there's a real authenticity to their sniping and bickering. Equally convincing is Lisa Barker as "the other woman" Liz.

There are elements of farce here. But without the usual frantic breathlessness you'd usually associate with the genre. While Haywire isn't classic comedy it is good fun and there are flashes of the comic brilliance that were a hallmark of Chppell's greatest work, that timeless sitcom Rising Damp.

* Until October 7. The box office is on 0161 928 1113. Star rating - ***

The Suppliant Women - Royal Exchange Theatre

THIS, I have to say, struck me as a strange choice by the RET, which marketed this ancient play as being very relevant to the world in which we live today.

Surely not? How can a piece, a 2,500 year old piece, have something to say to a 21st century audience living in a super fast, digital world?

But David Greig's vibrant adaptation of a work by one of the giants of ancient Greek drama feels very modern and in the band of exiled women we can so easily see the refugees and migrants, call them what you will, of today.

They experience the suspicion, hostility and vulnerability of the refugees searching for a better life and the play pricks our consciences with a plea for tolerance towards the so-called outsider.

A great deal of the story is told in song and the cast contains a gifted and dynamic group of young women who, vocally, give their all to provide what was forme, an unexpected and stunning theatrical spectacle.

The ladies in question work alongside a small group of actors. I'm not going to single out individual performances as this is a major triumph for the whole ensemble who tore up my preconceptions to create a theatre event that gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "in your face." Strongly recommended, as this production is anything but dry and boring.

* Until April 1. The box office is on 0161 833 9833. Star rating - ****

Woman In A Dressing Gown - Altrincham Little Theatr

AMY Preston is a saint, married to a man who acts like a big kid most of the time and has an infuriating and hugely inflated sense of self importance.

She deserves a cupboard full of medals, not jut the one, and yet she chooses to stand by her man. Maybe I'm making the mistake of viewing this protracted play through 21st century eyes. It was first performed in 1963 and we now live in more equal if not exactly utopian times.

But Jim Preston is still a pain.

Ted Willis's piece about marital strife shows its age, you feel, while watching it, like you're in another world. Sympathetic character are at a premium with the exception of the delightfully disorganised Amy (Kathryn Fennell) who escapes domestic purgatory by immersing herself in music and dreaming of a big money win. There's a very funny scene involving Amy, her good pal Hilda (Jane Newman), with both actors seizing with both hands the chance to shine.

Ian Butterfield gives a strong and solid performance as Jim, or Jimbo, as Amy calls him. But his character is never totally believable, the fault of the writing, not his.

Woman In A Dressing Gown is a production by Michael Russell, a director whose work has consistently impressed me. Which left mewondering what he and a cast with talent in abundance could have done with a better play, rather than one that lacks both spark and pace.

* Until January 28. The box office is on 0161 928 1113. Star rating - ***