Molière's School for Wives is stage comedy par excellence – constructed from the age-old building blocks of the genre: pompous senex chasing ingénue, age against youth, man against woman, mistaken identities and an improbable deus ex machina resolution. These jokes were already classics in the 1660s, and they'll probably still be getting laughs 400 years from now.

The play is set in a small town, where the verbose, self-important protagonist, Councillor Arnold, has made a habit of teasing his neighbours over their unfaithful wives. Confident that he himself will be immune to this endemic adultery, he has been grooming the naive, guileless Agnes since childhood, carefully insulating her from the corrupting influence of too much education. He keeps her closeted in an upstairs flat, in the care of two useless servants. With the appearance of a young, bumbling gallant, Horace, Arnold's plans are threatened, and he is appalled to discover that, despite all of his efforts, his protégée has developed desires and plans of her own.

Neil Bartlett's masterful adaptation, first performed in 1990, brings this Titan of French drama to life with a mixture of Sheridan-style gentility and impudent dashes of modern vernacular, timed to perfection for comic bathos. Written in verse, the play has a built-in rhythm and energy. The rhyme varies from light touches of assonance to decisive couplets which add spark to the jokes; the vocal equivalent of jazz hands. The remorseless pace of the dialogue is demanding on the relatively inexperienced cast, but they prove more than equal to it. As Arnold, Tom Barratt's energy is such that he occasionally seems to be about to explode. He takes advantage of the intimate space to make ferocious appeals to the audience for agreement as well as to intermittently accuse all those present of being either cuckolds or adulterers. The liveliest scenes are between Barratt and Jonathon Reid as his dopey, foppish love rival, but the rest of the cast are also excellent. Alexandra Ryall as Agnes positively swells with fury as she reads a series of "maxims for being a good wife", and Beth Eyre and Elliot Hardy make a great double act as Arnold's incompetent household staff. Timing is indispensable anywhere rhyme is involved, and aside from a slightly ill-judged slow-mo interlude, the production hits every comic note.

There are no frills on Mercurius' production: the costumes are simple and historically vague, the set is fairly minimalist. Wisely, director Jenny Eastop lets the quick, clever writing remain the main focus. Between the smart writing and the dynamic cast, School for Wives is a consistently funny and lively night's entertainment.

School For Wives, at The White BearSally Barnden reviews School for Wives at the White Bear Theatre Club.4