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Comedy restored

At Birmingham Rep, Bill Alexander's production of The Way of the World, William Congreve's stylish comedy of 1700, has been relocated to 1985.

Alexander explains: "I don't like making plays vaguely modern or 'timeless'; social comedy, particularly, has to be precise. I see similarities between the two decades, in both of which the Hobbesian philosophy of enlightened self-interest is prominent."

But he feels that the artifice of the Restoration "look" gets in the way. We see the play as a period piece rather than recognising that it is very funny. "At the heart of the play is the predicament posed by love, for Mirabell and Millament. She is a very proud, stylish woman: witty, intelligent, spirited. She doesn't like what she sees of the marriages around her and is fearful of 'dwindling' into a dull woman. Yet she deeply loves the man.

"For his part, Mirabell is a brilliant, self-interested, manipulator of people yet when he finds himself in love he can't control his emotions, but becomes subject to the whims of another."

That this conflict is worked out through the mechanism of a silly plot is immaterial, thinks Alexander, but it is essential that the audience get the meaning clearly, so he has, unobtrusively he hopes, simplified the language. Archaisms have been removed and he has shortened many of the sentences.

Clarity is the hallmark of this very intelligent, unfussy production in which Ruari Murchison's spare, elegant sets enable attention to focus on the human relationships.

The wariness of Mirabell and Millament is heightened by the space they maintain between them, negotiating their way around their feelings from opposite sides of the room. But the sexual tension between James Purefoy's sardonic, slightly dissipated Mirabell - the man every woman longs to reform - and Rakie Ayola's piquant, teasing Millament, is electric as in the "proviso" scene they slowly draw close enough to touch.

In an excellent cast, there's a splendidly funny Lady Wishfort from Linda Spurrier, as eager as Joyce Grenfell's solo women characters with a Barbara Cartlandish concern for preserving her feminine charm. She shares the honours for drawing laughter with Geoffrey Freshwater's robust Sir Wilful.

Until November 18. Tickets: 0121 236 4455.

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