ARTISTIC director Mark Stratton wants to stretch Esk Valley Theatre further by mounting shows with bigger casts and maybe next year’s tenth anniversary will be the catalyst for the Arts Council to support those meritorious ambitions.

On the other hand, in the present cutback climate, you are probably more likely to see sheep fly over the Fylingdales pyramid, and while Stratton’s ambitions to stage Ugo Betti’s Crime On Goat Island this summer were understandable, the company is nevertheless making a brilliant fist of two-handers each summer.

Just ask the busload of Esk Valley devotees from the Guisborough University of the Third Age who packed out the Tuesday’s press night, or the Women’s Institute or Yorkshire Countrywomen’s Association groups that book each year for their trek to the village institute 52 miles from York and seven or more from Whitby.

After Bernard Slade’s adulterous romantic comedy Same Time Next Year last year, Stratton has picked another American playwright for 2013, Neil Simon. And for the third year running, surely by chance, rather than design, playing away from home is the play’s driving force, following the bleak consequences of on-the-side shenanigans in NJ Crisp’s thriller Dangerous Obsession in 2011.

Only this time – in 1969 in New York’s East Thirties – it is not so much adultery as contemplating adultery. New York City humorist Simon delves into the midlife crisis of Barney Cashman (Rodney Matthew), loving husband and over-worked fish restaurateur, whose fingers never quite lose their aroma of clams, no matter how fastidious his washing and application of aromatic distractions.

Although he isn’t sure why, beyond a need to break the stolid pattern of married life however briefly, he wants to get his hands dirty in a different way by having an afternoon of passion with another woman. Just once. His social worker mother is out between 3pm and 5pm one day a week and so Barney can sneak into her apartment (and potentially pull-out sofa bed) for that brief time. What ensues is three rushed afternoon meetings, one in December, one in August, the last in September, with three very different woman (although here they are all played by former York Theatre Royal pantomime principal boy Joanne Heywood, who afterwards pointed that in playing all three, it suggested Barney liked a certain look in a woman).

In America, the roles were played originally by different actresses, but this production benefits hugely from the fun of seeing Heywood’s considerable skills in portraying differing mannerisms and outlooks on life. First to enter the initially timid lion’s den is restaurant client Elaine Navazio, hard nosed and in need of a fag before any thought of a s**g. She has made a habit of such encounters; Barney is out of his league.

Heywood has even more fun with a pretty but ill-fated girl from the park, Bobbi Michelle, who turns out to be a paranoid, pot-smoking, nutty actress cum nightclub singer with improbable stories and real problems piling up. Barney should avoid her league.

Last up is Jeanette Fisher, who he has known for years through friendship with her husband. Once more Barney has misread the signs, and he is confronted by a women beset with depression and a need to ask questions that put him on the moral spot about decency.

Heywood’s performance and Simon’s brilliantly witty, perceptive writing and eye for comedy in repetition and small differences of detail peak in this third act.

Rodney Matthew is no less impressive, with occasional hints of Woody Allen to him, and Stratton’s direction, as observant as Simon, is as much a pleasure as the minutiae of Pip Leckenby’s set.

This play is about trying to connect – which happens to coincide with Alan Ayckbourn’s new work on a similar theme, Arrivals & Departures, down the road in Scarborough – and it certainly connects with its audience.

Last Of The Red Hot Lovers, Esk Valley Theatre, The Robinson Institute, Glaisdale, near Whitby, until August 31, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm every Thursday and tomorrow, August 20 and 27. Box office: 01947 897587.