Imagine Mills & Boon

re-written by Monty Python. Or maybe the Muppets doing a cover version of a trashy American Gothic soap, like Dark Shadows. Fling in a fig leaf or three - I'll explain why, later - and some brilliantly ditsy clowning and whey-hey! You're close to being Cooped with Spymonkey, back on the Fringe with a new show to add to last year's award-winning Stiff.

Now, those of you who saw Stiff will remember the riotous spiral of mayhem and irreverence that attended the funeral preparations of Morag, dearly beloved wife of the decidedly Rada-inflected, noble-profiled Forbes Murdston. Well, even though Cooped is not a direct sequel to that saga, Forbes Murdston himself returns. Which bodes marvellously well

for the comedy, since the man

is a walking lightning conductor

for assorted loonies, bizarre occurences, and hilariously untoward leaps in surreal directions.

Those fig leaves are the only costumes that come to hand during a sudden Greek fantasy. And no - the cast aren't pretending to be statues. They dance. Energetically. Believe it - and see it! Now what, you might ask, are prancing Greeks doing in an old and isolated mansion somewhere in the wind-swept English county of olde Cartland?

Well, perhaps, like mini-skirted orphan Laura du Lay they're looking for escape, security, happiness. But I won't spoil any of your fun - and Spymonkey's excellent invention - by telling you what she finds, lurking in her employer's many closets.

Cal McCrystal, who directed - and helped devise Cooped with the company - explains that using the genre of Gothic romance as a narrative framework leaves plenty of room for Spymonkey to do what they enjoy most: clown around. ''Well everybody more or less knows the basic story. They know these two, Forbes and Laura, will get together. They know she's going to have a scary time. They know there's going to be a twist referencing Jane Eyre or Gaslight or Rebecca. And that works, I think, in our favour. Because then the audience won't have to think too hard! They'll just laugh - without thinking or even knowing why! We really want to avoid audiences sitting there, analysing. Second-guessing the plot. Because, seriously, the more they think - the more they're stopping themselves from just letting go and roaring with laughter. And we want them to get on that roll, that roll of laughter that just

builds and builds and builds.''

Working out how to trigger that response does, however, need perspiration as well as inspiration. Aitor Basauri, Petra Massey, Stephan Kreiss, and Toby Park - who are Spymonkey - agree that a shared friendship and pleasure in clowning (and playing tricks on one another) generate ideas. But fine-tuning the practicalities, rehearsing the timing and the techniques, can take days . . . and all for a gag or an effect that's over in seconds. The rapport that operates so clearly

on-stage harks back - for three of them, anyway - to a time when they were working on an outdoor spectacular in Switzerland. ''It was a spectacular flop, actually'' says Park - who was responsible for recruiting Massey and Basauri as replacements for some of the weaker links. ''We were sharing a dressing room. Found we were enjoying what went on before the show - all the send-ups and stuff - much, much more than the show itself.'' Back in London, they started working on their own ideas. Kreiss (who's German) joined them after an audition process that might have put some people off.

''We made him do Hitler impressions to see if he had a sense of humour,'' says a chuckling McCrystal. (Suddenly life behind scenes with Spymonkey seems not unlike Mel Brook's The Producers.) ''And he did them really, really well.'' Kreiss shrugs and murmurs that he liked what he saw of their spirit at his audition. The word spirit prompts someone to reveal that, on-stage, they often play improvised games - in Stiff, for instance, there was a sequence involving winking and drinking tequila that might have been going on yet, except they moved on to another game, this one involving impromptu orgasms. ''It's about taking risks,'' explains Basauri (who's Spanish - clearly this company's sense of humour knows no bounds, or passport controls). ''We have to do that, I think. Just like we couldn't go on doing only Stiff because it was so successful. We have to keep finding the things that inspire

us, that allow us to do anything we want.''

Whereupon Massey chips in to

add ''And re-write it and change scenes moments before the

audience come in!''

Cooped is at the Pleasance until August 27. Stiff makes a brief

re-appearance (also at the Pleasance) August 20-27.