Ascroll of cloth rolled down, with a snatch of script on it. The laid-back, grinning audience of 300 read out with a roar: We dont want war!

The superpower (Rome) went to war anyway. The reason was clear: Julius Caesar, the populace was informed, would do anything to keep up the flow of oil to Rome Sorry, that should have read: the supply of grain to Rome.

Laughter rippled through the crowd, and Cleopatra the quick-fire, lighthearted comedy production being staged every Tuesday and Friday by the English-speaking Miracle Players amid the magic of the Roman Forum was under full sail.

The show began with a piece of market research. How many of you are Rome residents? Surprisingly, arms shot up from almost half the crowd, evidence of how hugely popular the company has become since its first production in the Forum five years ago. This was an attempt to plug an obvious gap in the Estate Romana the absence until then of anything in English in the packed programme of often top-notch, outdoor live entertainment which has happily become the nightly hallmark of summer in Rome. The miracle of the Miracle Players all of them professionals is that, unlike most of the fare on offer, their play is free.

What with all the tourists and so many of them bound together by the English-

language, it was amazing that nobody was catering for them. And you can see the need. In August, we get up to 500 people at each performance, said Eric Bassanesi, who plays Mark Antony and is half the brain behind the project. Australian-born of Sicilian and Milanese parentage, Bassanesi arrived in Italy at the age of 11. He did Italian military service and then had six hard years of acting in Los Angeles.

The other half of the brain belongs to his Scottish girlfriend Denise McNee Theres nothing Italian about me who has lived in Rome for six years after a long time in the London fringe theatre. There, I was just one of many. Here, Im one of a few.

Cleopatra, played on and around the steps of the church opposite the Mamertine Prison, runs for 40 minutes and is so off-hand, the cast almost seem to be making up their lines as they go along. Youve no idea what work went into making it look improvised, said McNee, a strutting Julius Caesar. The company started twice-weekly, and then thrice-weekly, rehearsals way back in March.

Cleopatra, who first appeared in a rolled up, vertical, walking carpet, is played by Giulia Bernardini, who recently starred as a new bride who had lost her passport in the RAI police precinct series Distretto di Polizia. In the Forum, she showed off the profile of her nose and, wiggling her hips, remarked: I may be a Queen of Egypt, but I am at bottom Greek you know! The crowd liked that bit. Bernardini is into dubbing as well, and thinks English-speaking performers in Rome are lucky because of the tasty chances they get. A lot of people do their filming here nowadays because its cheaper, and they often farm out small parts locally to us.

The players were all in white Roman tunics with gold trim, including Octavius, Caesars adopted son who, thanks to a very funny stratagem, managed to wheel the Roman fleet around Cleopatras during the decisive sea battle at Actium. He is played by 30-year-old Rob Allyn, a relaxed product of the Suny Purchase drama conservatory in New York. I did acting in New York but it was tough. I decided I wanted to enjoy my life and act as well. And this is the place. He also works as a tour guide.

His stage sister, Octavia, is played by Dyanne White, another pro who, together with McNee, has written as many as 80 commissioned episodes for a new childrens series called Rabbit for the BBC. She is in Rome, together with her husband Tim Adams and two small children, simply because she loves the place.

They are all in the Miracle Players for the fun of it.

And the money? So far, their zany venture has failed to break even. Though contributions are invited after the show such as your car keys or that villa of yours on the Riviera the loot raked in still falls short of the costs. Though blessed with the high-sounding patronage of Rome city council and other bodies, none of these gives the Miracle Players a dime in hard cash.

Dont get me wrong, Bassanesi warned. Were not moaning or griping at all. We do it because we enjoy it and because we believe that what weve got going is an excellent investment for the future, not least because were doing a service to the city.

None in the audience that night would have doubted it for a minute.

Cleopatra is running every Tuesday and Friday at 19.30 until 8 August. For information tel. 0670393427, e-mail: info@miracleplayers.org, www.miracleplayers.org.

Picture: Cleopatra under full sail a lighthearted comedy production in English.