The play is set in 1943 in the living room of the vicarage at the fictitious village of Merton-cum-Middlewick (merging various actual village names, such as Merton and Middlewick, both in Oxfordshire, along with the old British usage of ‘cum’, meaning ‘alongside’ in the middle of a village name, as in Chorlton-cum-Hardy).
The lead character is Penelope Toop, former actress and now wife of the local vicar, the Rev. Lionel Toop. The Toops employ Ida, a Cockney maid. Miss Skillon, a churchgoer of the parish and a scold, arrives on bicycle to gossip with the vicar and to complain about the latest ‘outrages’ that Penelope has caused by waving to a soldier on a lorry. Once Lionel has left for the evening, an old friend of Penelope’s, Lance-Corporal Clive Winton, arrives to see Penelope, whom he had recognised when she waved to him. To dodge army regulations, he changes from his uniform into Lionel’s second-best suit, complete with a clerical ‘dog-collar’ to see a production of “Private Lives” (a Noël Coward play in which they had appeared together in their acting days), while pretending to be the visiting vicar Arthur Humphrey who is due to preach the Sunday sermon the next day.
Just before they set out, Penelope and Clive re-enact a fight scene from “Private Lives” and accidentally knock Miss Skillon unconscious (she had come back unannounced). Miss Skillon, wrongly thinking she has seen Lionel fighting with Penelope, gets drunk on a bottle of cooking sherry and Ida hides her in the broom cupboard. Then Lionel arrives home and, is knocked out by the German escaped prison officer on the run, who then takes the vicar’s clothes as a disguise, leaving poor Lionel in his underware.
To add to the confusion, both Penelope’s uncle, the Bishop of Lax, and the real Mr Humphrey unexpectedly show up early. Chaos quickly ensues, culminating in a cycle of running figures and mistaken identities. Eventually an army sergeant arrives in search of the German prison and finds four suspects, Lionel, Clive, Humphrey and the German, all dressed as clergy. No one can determine the identity of the prisoner (or anyone else for that matter) and the German is almost free when he is revealed and foiled by the quick work of Clive and Ida.
The scene calms down as the sergeant leads the German prison away and Humphrey leaves. Miss Skillon emerges from the closet, and she, the Bishop and Lionel demand an explanation. Penelope and Clive begin to explain in two-part harmony, getting up to the scene from “Private Lives,”when Miss Skillon once again manages to catch a blow in the face. She falls back into Ida’s arms as the curtain falls.