The Rivals and The Belle's Stratagem return with the director for a story by another early female playwright, Susanna Centlivre, with a few adaptations by Swale herself: The play's original prologue quickly gets ditched in favour of a new one, in the form of a song celebrating Britain's female playwrights from Aphra Behn to Polly Stenham and - a handy plug for coming attractions at the same venue - Anya Reiss.
Sir Francis Gripe (Gus Brown) is the very model of respectability, which is why so many people choose to make him guardian to their orphaned children and their inheritances. But behind the scenes he reveals his true colours, trying to hang on to as much of his wards' money as possible. Worst-off is Miranda (Alexandra Guelff,) whom Gripe has decided he's going to marry himself, but for all her protestations of love she has other ideas - she's in love with the gormless Sir George Airy (Matthew Spencer.) Gripe's own son Charles (Michael Lindall) loves Isabinda (Ella Smith) but her mother is determined to marry her off to a Spaniard. Charles determines to solve both his and George's romantic problems with a series of intrigues but the biggest problem could be the busybody of the title: Another of Gripe's wards, Marplot (Cerith Flinn,) is determined not only to find out what's going on but to "help" with the plots, invariably landing his friends in hot water instead.
As well as great performances the cast also excel at another trademark touch, the utterly relaxed and shameless flirting, ad-libbing and interaction with the audience. If you go to The Busy Body (and you really should,) try to get seats in the front row. It's audience interaction of the mildest, and also the silliest kind (if you are in the front row you needn't fear the cast dragging you onstage, but they may well sit on you.) Guelff's Miranda and Smith's Isabinda are great leading ladies, the latter hilariously flirty (sidling up to show the audience her new shoes and purring "sexay...") Frances Marshall and Kate Marlais bring strong support as their respective gentlewomen, and Marshall as Patch even gets her own romantic subplot with Henry Shields' Whisper. Brown's lecherous Gripe turns his own dubious charms on the ladies in the audience, Lindall gets to do a brilliantly inconsistent impersonation of a Spaniard, and there's a memorable scene involving George, Marplot, a lot of soot and an imaginary monkey.
Ironically, about half an hour in I was thinking this was good but the weakest of the three shows I'd seen so far, although the matinee audience being a bit quiet might have contributed to that impression. By the interval it had improved but the second act is just in another league and I think this may be my favourite yet, Swale having finely honed her craft to the point that this is one of those shows where I laughed so much my face hurt. And once again the attention to detail extends to the programme: In the past we've had a newspaper and an auction house catalogue (trying to sell off the cast and crew.) This time it's Marplot's secret diary, and with so many overpriced theatre programmes with nothing of interest in them, £2 for one with tons of extra comic material (including the full text of the new prologue) is a bargain.
Best of all, where I didn't catch the last two years' shows until their final day, I caught The Busy Body with two weeks yet to go in its run, which means I can recommend it, and I do. Go and see it (I'm already wondering if I can squeeze a return visit in.) If this doesn't make you laugh, then we're very, very different people.
The Busy Body by Susanna Centlivre with additional material by Jessica Swale is booking until the 6th of October at Southwark Playhouse.
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.